Here’s why the Celtics’ offense melted down at the end of Game 4

"At the end of overtime, hindsight’s 20/20."

Celtics 76ers
The Celtics were excellent throughout the second half on Sunday ... until the closing seconds. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

One day after the 76ers evened the Eastern Conference semifinals at 2-2 against the Celtics with an overtime win in Game 4, Joe Mazzulla sat down for a Zoom call with the media and answered a number of questions, almost all of which related to the final play of the game. 

Trailing by one with 18.2 seconds remaining after James Harden made what proved to be the game-winning 3-pointer, the Celtics failed to even get a shot off before the final buzzer sounded – a brutal result that brought to mind how the top-seeded Bucks watched their season end roughly a week ago. Mazzulla still had two timeouts in his pocket, and he faced a flurry of questions postgame – which bled into Monday’s Zoom call – about his decision to let the team play instead of using one. 


“[In] end of game situations, you want to get your players in the best position necessary,” Mazzulla said on a Zoom call Monday afternoon. “[The Sixers] do a good job of deciphering, is Embiid over the ball, is he not over the ball? Are they taking away the top pass, are they over the ball trying to discourage the pass? 

“They did a good job in Game 1, I believe, of changing the matchup on who was on who. I calculated that and thought the decision to keep Maxey on the floor, keep Embiid spaced, keep our spacing was something we worked on all year and something that we’re pretty good at.”

To Mazzulla’s credit, the Celtics did get the matchup they wanted, and they did keep Embiid spaced to the 3-point line. The set he wanted mostly worked, with the fairly important caveat that the Celtics had 18.2 seconds to get a shot up and they couldn’t do it.

But the final possession was a mess from the jump, so breaking it down in detail offers some insight into what happened. It’s important to remember that this is not how basketball works. In real time, the game moves quickly – seconds slip away like water out of cupped hands, and any split second decision offers dozens of What Ifs. 


Still, it’s enlightening to see how everything unfolded, so here’s a closer look. 

First, the play itself (which starts at 8:09 in the video below). 

:24.0 – We’ll start shortly before the offensive possession, when Jaylen Brown turned his head to look at Joel Embiid attacking Jayson Tatum. Brown had helped off Harden often against Embiid throughout the game, and it hadn’t really cost the Celtics previously. Still, ask any JV coach in the country: You can’t help off the strong-side corner. Embiid realized that Harden’s defender was one of the players contesting him, and he found his star teammate. Harden buried the 3-pointer.

The Sixers led by one. 

:18.2 – The Celtics, of course, didn’t call timeout. 

The Sixers brought Tobias Harris up to deny Jayson Tatum, which prevented him from bringing the ball up the floor. This was important, since getting the ball to Tatum cost the Celtics precious seconds – as we will soon see, those seconds mattered quite a bit. 

Instead, Smart inbounded to Horford, who passed back to him, and Smart jogged up the floor. 

:13.7 – Smart finally crossed half court, and he slowed to a walk, calling out the play. At this point, very little was happening in front of him. Tatum waved Jaylen Brown into the left corner, Al Horford set up shop on the other side of the floor, and Derrick White – who was being guarded by the Celtics’ primary defensive target, Tyrese Maxey – started under the basket. 


:12.0 – Everything we wrote at :13.7 was still happening. 

:10.5 – Still happening. 

:09.5 – Still happening. At this point, the possession started to look grim, which is a prime opportunity for a coach or a point guard or a superstar forward with two timeouts to take one. 

:08.0 – Smart finally passed to Tatum, who caught the ball with his foot on the “6” of the 76ers’ half-court logo. The half-court logo at Wells Fargo Arena is not large. Tatum was a long way from the rim. Again, this probably would have been an ideal time to call a timeout and break up a stagnant play. 

:06.0 – Somehow, with a playoff game on the line, Celtics’ set still wasn’t exactly clear. White meandered out to the 3-point line with Maxey in tow, while Smart – who was being guarded by Harden – set a screen for Tatum on the other side. Tatum waved him off, and Smart finally took off for the rim. At that point, it looked like Smart saw Embiid keeping a watchful eye on the paint, so he wheeled to his right and stood behind the 3-point line. 

We can’t stress this enough: Six seconds is a lot of time, but the Celtics’ offense was snail-like. This was one of the final moments when a timeout could have been called. On the sideline, assistant coach Aaron Miles could be seen imploring the team to go faster. Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard both waved their arms exasperatedly as well.


“Once we’re losing pace, I’ve got to call [timeout] so we can get a shot up earlier,” Mazzulla admitted on Monday.

:04.0 – White finally set the screen for Tatum, and he dribbled around it to his left. The Celtics were hoping to get a switch with Maxey guarding Tatum, but instead they drew a double team, which was predictable – the Sixers doubled Tatum often down the stretch (which, not-so-incidentally, is a strategy the Celtics might want to consider employing occasionally against Harden). 

Myriad things were broken by this point. The Celtics had ceded any chance at a tip-in or an offensive rebound. They didn’t have time to drive and kick. Everything had started far too late, and barring a miraculous drive and finish by Tatum against a double team, the game was already over.

:02.0 – Of course, Tatum has the ability to work miracles, and he nearly did – beating both Maxey and Harris toward the rim. Embiid came over to help, but it didn’t look like he had a path to defend Tatum. 

:01.6 – Tatum jumped. Embiid stayed down. Tatum probably would not have gotten his shot blocked if he took one. 

:01.1 – But Tatum wasn’t really looking at the hoop. Instead, he fired a pass out to Smart, who was relatively uncovered. 

:00.5 – The pass was a little to Smart’s right. He had to lean over to grab it, which meant he had to lean back to center himself and get into a shooting motion. 


:00.0 – Smart was going into his shooting motion, but his feet were still on the ground, and the ball was very clearly still in his hands. His shot dropped in, but nobody in the arena and nobody on the court actually thought he got it off. The officials went to the monitor, but by the time they announced to the crowd that the shot did not count and the game was over, the Celtics had already departed for the locker room. 

So who is to blame for the Celtics’ final play? As is often the case, no one person can hold all of it. Brown gets a hefty amount for helping off Harden and giving up the one shot the Celtics couldn’t afford. Smart, who has been the team’s floor general all year, took way too long to get his team organized. White needed to set the screen faster. Tatum needed to move quicker. And, of course, Mazzulla probably needed to call a timeout. 

“At the end of overtime, hindsight’s 20/20,” Mazzulla said. “I should have called it to help us get a 2-for-1 or get a couple more possessions. Obviously with 14 seconds left, down one, you want to get as many chances as you can. So, definitely learned from that.”

Hindsight is 20/20, but the series is also now 2-2. The Celtics have looked like the better team and still hold home-court advantage, but it remains to be seen whether the final seconds of Game 4 will be a footnote or a pivotal story line in the series.


“We just have to see what’s going on, see the time and we have to understand time and management,” Smart said on Sunday. “So it’s all right. On to the next one.”


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