"Celtics with the ball. Five seconds remaining. Four, three, two, one!---"
Over the past couple weeks, a growing concern has crept into the minds of Boston Celtics fans. Who should be taking the game-winning buzzer-beaters?
With two of their last five games going to overtime, including double overtime against Dallas, this concern has leapfrogged to the forefront of green minds everywhere.
For years and years, Celtics fans have grown accustomed to really only one staple play to end games. Paul Pierce gets the ball outside the three-point arc with anywhere from seven to 15 seconds remaining and forces his man to backpedal to the vicinity of the right elbow. From there, Pierce either uses a jab-step or up-fake to clear space before putting up a jumper.
Historically speaking, I've rarely had a problem with this shot. Pierce has been taking them since before the turn of the century, and I've emulated the exact play thousands of times in my parents' driveway. You couldn't really have a problem with it. You earn the right to take those shots by virtue of being the best offensive player on the team for each and every of the last 14-plus seasons.
There are multiple issues starting to arise with the Celtics' standard play, though. It has come under much scrutiny of late. Whether you call it "hero ball," "clogged toilet offense" or some other derogatory act, the chances are you now cringe every time you see Pierce setting up his defender for another dance in which they both know the steps.
One glaring cause for concern is who Paul Pierce has become. In his advanced age, that NBA odometer is ticking high on his knees. The fact that this is currently Pierce's worst shooting season since entering the league cannot just be dismissed. He is shooting just 41.4 percent from the field overall.
According to 82games.com, Pierce is shooting just 26 percent in the clutch—what they define as the final five minutes of regulation or overtime in a game that has one team within five points of the other.
At 35 years of age, Pierce can't be at 100 percent at the end of games. No one who hasn't taken mysterious trips to Germany could.
When Dahntay Jones is forcing you off your spot and actually blocking your attempted game-winner, it is time to seriously consider other options. Pierce's legs were shot by the end of that Dallas game, and that has to weigh into the decision of who gets that last attempt.
The second issue here I wrote about at length last week. Doc Rivers is supposed to be somewhat of a maestro coming out of timeouts. That is one of the true visual times you can judge a head coach in basketball. He has his fingerprints all over that first play you see.
I can't believe that since Rivers has been with the Celtics, since 2004-05, he has been in those huddles drawing up isolations for Pierce. I'm sure in his first couple seasons he let it go because Pierce was far and away his team's best player and in his prime.
Then came the Big Three and the world's greatest offensive distraction, Ray Allen on the perimeter. He alone provided Pierce or Kevin Garnett with enough space to work their end-of-game magic fairly successfully. Rivers had some say in what went down on those plays, but most had to be self-explanatory.
Still, we did get to see some vintage Doc Rivers calls coming out of timeouts. The alley-oop buzzer-beater that so many teams now employ was at least partially kick-started by Rivers a couple of years ago.
So why have the Celtics returned so often to this isolation form of offense in the final seconds?
Now there has come a new brand of Boston Celtics basketball. Even with the holdovers from that prior version, this is very much a new-look team. With a new-look team needs to come new ideas on this ever-important play-call.
The Boston Celtics currently sit No. 2 in the league in assists per game. This is a team that thrives on passing, mainly from its point guard. Yes, a lot of that passing is one-directional, or Rajon Rondo-to-Player X. It is movement of the ball nonetheless.
So how can a team that averages 23.5 assists per game and assists on 63 percent of their made baskets not look for an assist on that final play?
The Celtics offense has begun to shift more to the running, transition style so popular in today's NBA, because that was thought to be Rondo's strength. However, their roots are still very much in halfcourt-style basketball.
Rondo is Rondo because his court vision allows him to thrive when things are closer together. In transition, openings are wide and a lot point guards can make plays. What makes Rondo special is his ability to thread tiny passages with the ball in the halfcourt set.
Rajon Rondo, Doc Rivers and Kevin Garnett are not benefits that were here when Pierce developed the last-shot habit he still employs. They are here now, though, and a change should be made. Not to any particular player, but a routine must be put in place.
The Celtics have two of the greatest distributing minds in the NBA at their disposal within every huddle in Rivers and Rondo. When your two leaders are point guards, the play coming out of those huddles cannot be isolation.
The play the Celtics ran at the end of overtime in the loss to Philadelphia was exquisitely planned and executed up until Rondo lost traction on the floor.
Rondo inbounds the ball to Garnett, who takes one dribble and looks to Pierce at the top of the key long enough to freeze literally all five Philadelphia defenders. Rondo then sprints to the baseline and takes a toss from Garnett. Garnett makes a quick gesture to feign what would've been a violent pick on Evan Turner, causing him to lose a step in coverage. All that gave Rajon Rondo a wide-open look at a short jumper or possibly another step into a layup.
Plays like that involve planning, passing and subtle intelligence. That is the type of team the Celtics have to be in these situations. It won't ever matter so much who is taking these shots, because an assist will almost always lead to a better look.
This may be the final straw in making this Rajon Rondo's offense, and on a larger scale, Rondo's team. The thing about a team belonging to Rondo, though, is that the team can belong to a multitude of players in big moments.
Whoever gets open gets the ball and in turn that last-second shot. Putting the ball in Rondo's hands is as close a guarantee that the best shot will be taken as you can get in the NBA.
So, announcer. "Pierce from the elbow." "Garnett from 20 feet." "Terry for three." "Rondo with the keeper layup."
Take your pick.