The Celtics led by one point and were inbounding the ball with 3.4 seconds left in their Eastern Conference semifinal opener against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers needed to send the Celtics to the foul line to stop the clock and stand any chance at winning, yet it was Rondo, the career 62 percent free throw shooter, who wheeled off a set of screens to grab the inbound pass.
The play was not a mistake. In fact, it was an expertly executed, low-risk gamble that was born from common sense more than anything else.
The Sixers are a disciplined team that manages to defend well without fouling, but on Saturday that discipline put them in a tight spot. They had not committed a foul in the final two minutes of the game, meaning their first foul in that situation would not send the Celtics to the free throw line. The Celtics were aware of the foul to give, and the Sixers must have been, too, but Philadelphia came out with a halfcourt defensive setup that seemed to assume the C's would try to inbound the ball to one of their strong free throw shooters.
Instead, Paul Pierce tossed a scary looking lob pass to Rondo as he ran into the backcourt. Rondo caught the ball beyond defender Evan Turner's reach and simply outran the Sixers guard, avoiding a foul and ending the game.
"We knew they had a foul to give, and I told Doc to give me the ball and I would try to use my speed," Rondo said. "I thought about [throwing] the ball in the air, but we have the big JumboTron and I would have hit it, so that was a bad idea. I just tried to use my quickness and escape."
Pierce pointed out that even if Turner had caught Rondo, the Celtics still would have had a side out. In that case, Rondo probably would have inbounded to Pierce, Ray Allen or Kevin Garnett, each of whom shoots better than 85 percent from the line.
The Sixers, an underrated squad in terms of basketball IQ, recognized the Celtics' intentions on the last play, but it was too late to make an adjustment.
"It was a good play to run off the clock," Sixers forward Andre Iguodala said. "We were expecting them to get it in the frontcourt and get a foul, but I think we could have done a better job of scoping it out. With Paul taking it out of bounds and with him being a clutch free throw shooter, you kind of figured something was up. Doc does a really good job of drawing plays up to end the games. You can put that in one of his all-time plays.
"It's kind of a gamble," Iguodala added, "but it's a smart gamble. They beat us on it."
Rivers dodged the criticism that would have come with a potentially disastrous decision in the waning moments of the Celtics' last game, when a defensive mix-up led to Marquis Daniels covering the Hawks' Al Horford on a crucial play in Game 6 of their first-round series. The NBA acknowledged Saturday that the referees made the wrong call when Daniels fouled Horford before the ball was inbounded, which should have given the Hawks a free throw and the ball. Had the Celtics lost, Rivers would have faced questions about his decision to put in a cold Daniels on one of the decisive possessions of the season.
Less than 48 hours later, though, the opponent was hailing Rivers as a master strategist. Neither coaching decision makes Rivers a genius or a stooge, but on Saturday he made the call that won a playoff game. The list of coaches who can make such a claim is short.