Paul Pierce has won many game for the Boston Celtics in a situation similar to last night’s, isolated against single coverage at the top of the key with the clock winding down. Against the Spurs last night, he even had an extra advantage: Tim Duncan, San Antonio’s 35-year old center, had switched onto Pierce and the mismatch should have made Pierce’s challenge simpler. Many people dislike the isolation on the final play; but for the Celtics, leaving Pierce alone in a mismatch, especially in the final seconds of a tight game, when defense is escalated and sets are more difficult to run, made all kinds of sense. (WEEI)
“We got Paul into an iso,” Doc Rivers said of the trademark isolation play that he has drawn up for Pierce many times before. “He got probably the shot he wanted. He just didn’t make it… and they had a foul to give. So most teams switch. We actually said that they probably would and we were trying to get Duncan on a Paul matchup because we thought we had the speed advantage.”
Isolating Pierce wasn’t actually Boston’s first option. With 17 seconds left Kevin Garnett secured a Danny Green miss and the Celtics tried to take advantage of their transition opportunity before asking for a timeout. Trying to score without a timeout is something teams do sparingly although it’s normally the best way to catch the defense on its heels during a game’s waning moments. But Rajon Rondo got the ball on the wing and didn’t find any soft spots in the Spurs defense, so he looked at the nearest official and asked for a timeout.
By that time just 7.9 seconds remained on the clock — enough to run a set, sure, but Rivers didn’t feel like any set would get a better look than a Garnett-on-Pierce ball screen. To complicate matters Ray Allen, despite his trifecta on the previous possession, had shot blanks most of the night and Garnett was having one of his worst shooting nights of the season. Rondo is rarely a target at the end of games due to his suspect jumper (a strategy which is both understandable and arguable) and Avery Bradley had performed incredibly all game, but would never be considered to shoot a last-second shot. So Pierce was Rivers’ natural choice for the final possession.
It wasn’t a straight isolation, either, despite people’s contention that it was. The Celtics ran the same pick-and-roll set they used to get Kevin Garnett open for a game-winner against the Golden State Warriors three weeks ago. Garnett called it “M-S-G” after the Warriors game, probably referring to the game-winner he hit off the same set against the New York Knicks two seasons ago.
The problem this time was that San Antonio defended things almost perfectly. They switched the screen, which gave Pierce a bit of a mismatch with Duncan but also kept Garnett from opening up for a good look. Pierce tried desperately to gain a little bit of separation from Duncan, but the aging wizard stayed with him every step of the way, not letting Pierce get his favorite shot, a step-back to the right.
Golden State defended the set very similarly three weeks ago, with Andris Biedrins switching onto Pierce. But Biedrins, unlike Duncan, could not keep Pierce out of the lane. Pierce penetrated, drew Garnett’s defender and found Garnett for a wide open jumper.
Also crucial for San Antonio was Stephen Jackson’s defense on Garnett. He split the difference between Pierce and Garnett expertly so that he could limit Pierce’s off-the-dribble penetration while simultaneously denying Garnett an open jumper.
The result was a decent look for Pierce, a make-able shot, but one the Celtics certainly wish had been a little higher-percentage. Second-guessing after the fact is fine, but when you’re faced with as many variables as Doc Rivers is, getting the Eastern Conference Player of the Month into a switch against a 35-year old center isn’t a bad decision.