The Final Three Minutes of Every Quarter Are Deciding The ECFs
The best coach I ever had in any sport was my first basketball coach, Mr. Smith (his actual name). Mr. Smith had a wealth of basketball knowledge, but his gift was simplifying the game for his players. One of his best tricks was to break down every game into two-minute sections. So an eight-minute quarter had four two-minute sections. His mantra was, “all you have to do is win the next two minutes.” Making a complicated game easy was his gift, and with his simple advice, we won more than our fair share of games. When it comes to the Celtics and Cavaliers, the two combatants in the Eastern Conference Finals, the final portion of every quarter has decided the most pivotal games of the series (Games Two and Four). The final three minutes of each quarter of Game Two propelled the Celtics from a double-digit deficit to a double-digit win (and a 2-0 series lead) while the final three minutes of each quarter of Game Four allowed the Cavaliers to hold the Celtics at bay (and tie the series up at two games apiece).
The reason the final three minutes of every quarter or so pivotal in basketball is because they are hidden or stolen points. Especially the final possession of every quarter. If somebody scores on the final possession, you literally cannot come back and even the score. You have to wait until the next frame if you are lucky (or the next game if you are not). Winning the final three minutes is a collection of hidden points. It is a lottery ticket on top of a jackpot. In Game Two the Celtics cashed in… in Game Four the Cavaliers were on the money.
First, let us take a look at the final three minutes of Game Two’s first quarter.
If we include the Jaylen Brown right before the three-minute mark, the Celtics start this pivotal stretch down by 10, 25-15. Brown’s basket cuts the lead to eight. This was the Game Two where LeBron James was going supernova, but the Celtics did not wilt. They just kept chipping away… and did so here at the end of the first. Brown knocked down a three, James came back with a tip-in, but a Baynes two and a Brown trip to the free throw line (where he went 1-of-2) made it a four-point game. The Celtics, in a quarter they lost by four points, were a +6 in the final three minutes of a first quarter where LeBron was at his best.
The final three minutes of the second quarter lucked to not be going this way, but then Marcus Smart showed up.
Dealing with a nine-point deficit under the three-minute mark, the Celtics watched the Cavaliers actually extend the lead back to 11 thanks to a Jeff Green three. However, in one of the craziest plays of the series, Marcus Smart had a chance for a three after a mad scramble, inadvertently tossed the ball straight up into the air and in one motion recaught the ball and tossed it to Marcus Morris who converted for a layup. Smart then stole an ill-advised James pass and fed Morris for a dunk to bring the deficit to seven. Smart and Morris turned a -2 in the final three minutes, into a +2. Those are huge hidden points at the end of the half, and it gave the Celtics a ton of confidence heading into the third, a quarter they traditionally own at home.
And own the third quarter they did, especially the final three minutes. With the game close at 76-74, an Aron Baynes three gave the Celtics their biggest lead at the time. After a couple of baskets back-and-forth, the Celtics finally extended the lead on a Terry Rozier three and actually had a chance to make it an even bigger lead, but Rozier missed his shot at the end of the quarter, closing the frame with an 84-77 advantage. The Celtics, who were behind for the entire first half, closed the third quarter with a +5 and were feeling pretty good about themselves heading into the fourth.
The fourth quarter was a little strange due to the J.R. Smith Flagrant One foul, but even then, the Celtics posted a +2 in the final three minutes of the stanza. The Celtics won this game 107-94. They were a +6 in the first quarter, a +2 in the second quarter, a +5 in the third quarter, and a +2 in the fourth quarter. Add those up and you get a +14… in a game they won by 13. Every moment of every game counts, but those hidden points in the final three minutes of Game Two literally were the difference between winning and losing.
Cleveland Flips the Script in Game Four
The Celtics blew out the Cavs in Game One at home. The Cavs blew out the Celtics in Game Three at home. The Celtics stayed calm at the end of each quarter to steal points and eventually steal Game Two at Home. The Cavaliers stayed calm and kept the Celtics at bay by playing their game and stealing points in the final three minutes of each quarter in Game Four.
Despite everybody except for Aron Baynes forgetting how to hit a layup or dunk the ball in the opening quarter of Game Four, the Celtics were only down by eight and had possession as the clock wound under the three-minute mark. But Jayson Tatum would miss a shot to bring the Celtics within six, the Celtics would foul James… and then the Celtics would forget how to play basketball. What could have been a six-point game with just under three minutes to go instead turned into a 16-point lead for the Cavs. The Cavs posted a +8 in the first frame… right as the Celtics were trying to claw back into the competition.
Once again the Celtics thought they found a way back into the game as things headed to the final three minutes of a quarter… and once again the Cavaliers and LeBron James made them look foolish for thinking as such. After whipping the Celtics in the final three minutes of the first quarter, the Cavs went diđi đi, mau and buried the Celtics again in the final three minutes of the second. An 11 point lead bumped up to 15 thanks to the Celtics trying the novel approach of not playing any defense whatsoever. The Celtics headed to the locker room down by 15… having allowed the Cavs to pull off a +8 and a +4 in the final three minutes of the first two quarters.
But of course, the Celtics did not learn their lesson. The Celtics tried to keep it close and actually had the deficit down to single-digits at the 2:59 mark. However, Tristan Thompson split his trip at the free thrown line to push the lead back to double-digits and the Celtics could not do anything to change that through the next 2:59. Instead of heading into a pivotal fourth quarter with the mantra of “it is only a single-digit lead,” the Celtics had to stare once again at a disadvantage of more than 10 points. At the end of the third, the score read 89-76 for the Cavs. The Cavs dropped yet another +4 on the Celtics. Through three quarters they were a +8, +4, and +4… and led by 13.
For those interested, here are the final three minutes of the fourth quarter of Game Four You will notice this is the only quarter the Celtics closed out with a positive. That was aided solely by four points from Jaylen Brown when the Cavaliers did not feel like playing any defense (and rightfully so). Even with that, the Celtics were only a +2. That means the Cavaliers went +14 in a game they won by nine. Those hidden points in the final three minutes of Game Four literally were the difference between winning and losing.
Basketball is too complicated a sport to say “this is what matters the most.” We have seen two blowouts so far in this series resulting in one win for each team. However, we have also seen each team wilt in the most pivotal moments of quarters, directly resulting in losses. One cannot simply say, “do not soil your Long Johns in the final three minutes of a quarter and you will win the game,” but at the same time it cannot hurt. Whichever team wins Game Five in Boston is going to do so because they kept their cool throughout, but most importantly because they did not let the opposing team get away with stealing those hidden points.