Watching live, I thought I had some beef about the final possession of regulation. But, looking back on the play, there wasn’t too much to argue with.
My first complaint (I thought) was the play call: I normally hate isolating a player during the last possession. Not only does it tend to result in a low-percentage off-the-dribble jumper, but it lets the defense set up in position. But let’s be honest with ourselves: Paul Pierce was being defended by Chase Budinger. Budinger couldn’t guard Pierce if Pierce was in his infamous wheelchair.
As Pierce came off a Rondo screen to get the ball, undersized center Chuck Hayes made a terrific play. Instead of allowing Aaron Brooks to switch onto Pierce, as would be normal protocol when a point guard sets a screen, Hayes jumped onto Pierce instead. While Pierce would have easily posted up Brooks and shot the ball right over him, Hayes at least provided size and girth.
Rondo notices what Hayes is trying to do, and attempts to screen Hayes rather than Budinger, who started off the play defending Pierce. Despite Rondo’s last-ditch attempt to screen him, Hayes is able to stay with Pierce.
Even though Hayes — not Brooks — was on him as Pierce caught the ball at the top of the key, Pierce had room to operate and a 6’6″, blocky big man on him. It should have been go time.
In the above picture, notice Tony Allen setting a screen for Kevin Garnett. This is only a decoy. Garnett barely tries to come off the screen at all, flattening out to the wing after strolling around Allen’s pick. Allen, too, pops to the corner, as do Finley and Rondo at the top of the screen. This gives Pierce a lot of room to operate.
With 3.8 seconds left, Pierce starts his move. Not a lot of time left, but that was by design. Holding the ball in a tie game, you don’t want to allow the other team the chance to win the game. Pierce was either going to win the game, or it was going to overtime.
The next part of the play is where I thought I had another beef. Pierce decided to settle for a fadeaway jumper, even though Chuck Hayes, a center, was defending him. Get to the damn hoop, Paul!
On second thought, though, Pierce had little choice. As he crossed over to his left, Chase Budinger was waiting for him in perfect help defense position, and Pierce was forced to spin into the aforementioned fadeaway jumper.
At the point Pierce spun, he had a few options: 1) Continue dribbling, likely forcing contact with Budinger and hoping for a call, 2) Hit Michael Finley, open due to Budinger’s help defense, or 3) Spin away from Budinger, attempting a jumper over Chuck Hayes’ outstretched hands.
Dribbling at Budinger was ruled out because you can’t trust the officials to blow the whistle in the final seconds. Passing to Finley was ruled out due to trust: Finley would have had a more open jumper, but Pierce — as I do — trusted himself more than Fin. All that left option number three, the fadeaway jumper over Hayes.
While I normally hate the fadeaway jumper in a game’s final possession, it was probably the best shot in this scenario. The Celtics thought they could isolate Chase Budinger or Aaron Brooks at the top of the key for Pierce, but the Rockets made a great decision and Chuck Hayes guarded him instead, taking away Pierce’s bread-and-butter midrange post-up game.
The results sucked, but the thought process was actually right. As always, you can second-guess the play call. Maybe Rondo should’ve gotten the ball and been asked to create. Maybe the C’s should have simply given Pierce the ball at halfcourt, with no screening action, to assure that Budinger would be guarding him.
But the reasoning behind doing exactly what the C’s did was solid, it just took a terrific play by Houston to keep Pierce from having his way with either Brooks or Budinger. Here it is in video:
As Rasheed Wallace always says, “Game tape don’t lie.”