How the Boston Celtics’ New Clock Trick Confuses Referees and Frustrates Opponents

Late in the fourth quarter of the Boston Celtics’ 131-112 win over the Denver Nuggets on Friday night, Aaron Gordon was called for a flagrant foul after going over Grant Williams in the backcourt. The odd nature of the play and Williams’ comical miss on one of the ensuing free throws got 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. Leading by 13 points with just over five minutes to play, the Celtics inbounded the ball after a Gordon dunk. But instead of picking it up, Jayson Tatum let it sit there while Williams and Al Horford played spotlight until Gordon blew things up.

The obvious question is why? Everyone is familiar with teams letting the ball roll on the floor in the dying seconds of games to save time, but why did the Celtics start doing it with minutes remaining? In short, they discovered a loop hole in how the clock works.

Before the final two minutes, the game clock runs continuously on made baskets. However, the possession shot clock does not start until the ball is touched. In theory, then, a team could hold the ball for minutes at a time if they weren’t forced to pick it up and start the shot clock.

The Celtics have figured this out and use it to their advantage to waste time when they have a lead in the fourth quarter. In this example, Gordon’s dunk happens at 5:16 and the foul to end the game is at 5:06. It started 10 precious seconds that the Nuggets might need if they were to attempt a comeback.

While the Nuggets never got close enough after that point to matter, the Celtics’ ploy was successful in helping them stave off a comeback attempt already this season. Going back to week one, they were desperate to hold off the Miami Heat in a rematch of the Eastern Conference finals. Marcus Smart used the maneuver twice in the final five minutes to shave 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 used the trick so successfully that the referees were confused and stopped the game. After Paolo Banchero scored a layup, Smart let the ball roll for 15 seconds and might have had even more time off the clock had the refs not blown the whistle. In that game, the Celtics survived with a six-point victory, again in part because of this play.

This could be something the league’s competition committee looks at during the offseason, but there won’t be any rule changes midway through the season, so expect the 9-3 Celtics to continue using this trick when they have a lead in the fourth quarter – – which will be often. It’s just smart basketball.

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