Wednesday, March 29 2023
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Late in the fourth quarter of the Boston Celtics‘ 131-112 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Friday night, Aaron Gordon was called for a flagrant foul after he ran over Grant Williams in the backcourt. The bizarre nature of the play and Williams’ comical miss on one of the ensuing free throws received most of the attention, but the bigger story was what led to the incident in the first place: the Celtics’ new game clock trick. 

Let’s use Friday night’s incident to illustrate how it works. Nursing a 13 point lead with just over five minutes to play, the Celtics inbounded the ball following a Gordon dunk. But instead of picking it up, Jayson Tatum just let it sit there, while Williams and Al Horford acted as screeners until Gordon blew things up. 

The obvious question is why? Everyone is familiar with teams letting the ball roll up the floor in the final seconds of games in order to save time, but why have the Celtics started doing it with minutes remaining? In short, they’ve discovered a loop hole in the way the clock operates. 

Prior to the final two minutes, the game clock runs continuously on made baskets. However, the shot clock for a possession does not begin until the ball is touched. In theory, then, a team could keep the ball for minutes at a time if they are not forced to pick it up and initiate the shot clock. 

The Celtics have figured this out and have been using it to their advantage to waste time when they have a lead in the fourth quarter. On this example, Gordon’s dunk happens at 5:16 and the foul to stop play is at 5:06; 10 valuable seconds rolled off that the Nuggets may have needed if they had attempted a comeback. 

While the Nuggets never got close enough after that point for it to matter, the Celtics’ trick has been successful in helping them stave off a comeback attempt already this season. Going back to the first week, they were desperately trying to hold off the Miami Heat in an Eastern Conference finals rematch. Marcus Smart used the maneuver twice in the final five minutes to drain 27 seconds off the clock.

Fifteen seconds here after a Jimmy Butler dunk.

And another 12 seconds here after a Tyler Herro layup. 

The Celtics held on for a seven-point win, in large part because they took nearly 30 seconds off the clock. 

In another early-season win against the Orlando Magic, they were using the ruse so successfully that the referees got confused and stopped the game. After Paolo Banchero scored a layup, Smart let the ball drift for 15 seconds and may have gotten even more time off the clock if the refs didn’t blow the whistle. In that game, the Celtics survived with a six-point win, again in part due to this play. 

This could be something the league’s competition committee takes a look at during the offseason, but there won’t be any rule change mid-season so expect the 9-3 Celtics to continue using this ploy when they have a lead in the fourth quarter — which will be often. It’s just smart basketball. 



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