Weekly Countdown: The fine art of hitting a game-winning bucket
Not just anyone can hit a game-winner; it doesn't come simply with luck
As Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen attest, it takes a certain mindset and obvious skill
More topics: Effects of a hard cap, teams poised to make moves before Feb. 18
5 Takes on the last shot
Not just anyone can sink that one and only shot to win a game. And the importance of that final bucket cannot be exaggerated, as we saw last Sunday in Boston when the Lakers upended the Celtics.
Who gets the last word? Boston and Los Angeles have been at it since the 1960s while winning 32 of the league's 63 championships, including a split of the two most recent titles. The back-and-forth rivalry spun on last week through 47 minutes and 50 seconds of intensive play, forcing their most recent meeting to be decided by the NBA's version of penalty kicks as taken by Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen.
First up was Bryant. With his Lakers trailing 89-88, he drove left into the key top, providing him with a view of the entire court that made doubling him too risky. Not that Allen appeared to need the help: He was aggressively mirroring Bryant, who was playing despite a sprained ankle that reduced his lift and long-lasting injuries to two fingers that affected his shooting. Nevertheless, he squirmed and spun and writhed up a flattened fallaway swish that Allen turned to watch like a pitcher glaring at a home run.
So now it was Allen's turn. During the Celtics' timeout with 7.3 seconds to go, he readied himself for the likelihood of a cross-court pass from Paul Pierce. Nothing in Allen's expression or manner revealed his intention to make what could have been the biggest shot of the Celtics' season.
"You've got 10 seconds, this is it, so you definitely are locked in and everybody knows exactly the play you've got to make," said Allen, discussing this very scenario with me six days earlier in the Celtics' locker room. "It would be funny if you could take the five guys [coming out of the huddle], somewhat like the World Series of Poker, and you put the heart rate on them. And you would be able to say, 'He's getting the shot because his heart rate is a little elevated.' Or, 'His [heart] is so calm that he's getting the shot.' "
Allen has learned to read the poker faces coming out of those huddles. "It's like when we're in practice early in the season and we're playing the second unit, and it's a one-possession game and Doc [Rivers, the Celtics' coach] draws a play," said Allen, 34. "I'll look at everybody's face, and I always know when it's [Brian] Scalabrine who's going to get the shot. I'll say, 'Scal's getting the ball, everybody watch what Scal does!' Because Scal just kind of gets real stiff, and he looks straight down like he's trying to remember the play so he can get to his spot and be ready to shoot the ball."
I asked Allen how a monitor might rate his heartbeat coming out of the huddle for the final shot of a tight game.
"I think mine would be slower, sure," Allen said.
He appeared to be relaxed Sunday when Pierce drew in the defense and leapt to swing the ball to Allen at the left elbow of the three-point line near the Lakers' bench. Afterward, the 6-foot-5 Allen felt as if he might have rushed up the shot slightly, to compensate for the close-out defense of 6-foot-9 Lamar Odom. The ball skipped off the back iron like an 18th-green putt struck slightly too hard through the break.
"I've missed plenty of [win-or-lose] shots," Allen said six days earlier. "People leave you alone when you miss a shot, or [they say], 'You'll get it next time.' But when you make a shot, they talk about it for two days like it's the greatest thing."
So it was. Bryant's shot clinched a winning road trip for the Lakers, who lost earlier at Cleveland (they finished 5-3 after a loss at Memphis one day after the Boston game). Meanwhile, Allen's Celtics faced renewed speculation that they were too old to contend and that he may soon be traded. The outcomes of one shot for each team had made all of the difference.
One thing in common. All of the best big-time shooters share the looks of Bryant and Allen as they waited for the ball last Sunday. They appear to be entirely at peace.
"I walk out there thinking they know I'm going to shoot it, I know I'm going to shoot it," said All-Star guard Brandon Roy, the Trail Blazers' last-second game-changer. "And for a basketball player, that's like the best feeling. For a competitor, you're saying, 'This is great.' "
Instead of tightening under the pressure, Mavericks guard Jason Terry focuses on the moment. "Those are the ones that are pure concentration," he said, looking back on the 10 winners he estimates making over his 11-year career ("and if you go back to college, you can add another six," he added). Terry has come to realize that his form is never more pure than when the game is on the line. "I have pictures of three game-winners and they're all in the same spot on the court with two different teams -- one with Atlanta and two of the same shots with Dallas. Same form, same follow-through. It's truly amazing. I couldn't believe it when I saw it.
"I've got one picture in my basement in Atlanta, and I have two in Dallas. They're blown up big, and they actually say 'Game Winner' on the bottom of them. Pretty cool, pretty cool."
He can't say he was relaxed before making those shots. "More than anything, you're really locked in," he said. "It's almost like being in the zone, and especially if you know the play is coming to you. You already went through it time and time again in your head during that timeout, that 'Hey, I'm going to do whatever I've got to do to get this ball in the hole.' "
Preparation. "Coach Keith Smart taught me to go through a little routine anytime I'm getting ready to take a big shot or coming out of a timeout and it's a last-second shot," said Clippers guard Baron Davis, who famously led the No. 8 Warriors to their first-round upset of the top-seeded Mavericks three years ago. "And so I use it and it works."
Smart, of course, made the 16-foot jumper with five seconds remaining to win the 1987 NCAA championship for Bob Knight at Indiana. He would meet Davis as his assistant coach at Golden State, but Davis is too cutthroat to share the wisdom.
"I can't tell you, man," he said. "It just helps me relax. It's just a little mental thing that I do as I'm coming out on the floor. I do it especially if I know I'm about to get the last shot. It totally relaxes me and puts me in the mode."
But then, Davis is always preparing himself for the biggest moments. "All the time," he said. "You're always shooting against the clock when you're working out or playing on your own. Even as a kid you practice those last-second shots and you try to put yourself in that moment. That's the fun part of the game: You make it, you're the hero; you miss it, oh well."
A lot of drudgery and hard work goes into making those shots.
"That's the way that I train myself," Allen said. "I was on the treadmill this morning running -- you do everything you can do to condition your heart to beat in times where the atmosphere takes a jump to another level, where the energy juices up everything, and now you're sitting there thinking" -- he exhales -- "I'm rising with this energy. But then you're able to calm yourself, and you're not allowing your emotions to take you out. So you still can think."
While Celtics fans may be agonizing over the pressure, Allen is focusing on what he has done so many times before. This opportunity to win the game with one shot is something he has earned -- or so he reminds himself.
"The last-second shots, they're one of those things, when you go to do it, you don't think about it," he said. "Because this is what you've done forever. It just so happens this is the last three or four minutes when everybody else is thinking, Boy, we've got to do this for the game. But I'm just thinking, Get the ball right here, and I'll get to my spot and let it fly.
"Have you ever seen those panoramic views of a stadium, where you look down and everything's channeled on the court and you see all these people surrounding the court? Everybody's focused right in and that one guy is shooting a free throw, and everybody is thinking, Man, how do you make that shot while everybody is watching you? Because all these eyes are around you watching, and then there's everybody watching on TV. But for us, it's just one man, one basket, one ball, and you're just there looking at the rim. You never think about the gravity of the situation."
Or if you do, you'll probably never make the shot.
A lifelong skill. Hard work isn't everything. "You definitely have to be born with it," Terry saod of the ability to stay calm and focused under pressure. "It's a certain skill set, a gift."
Roy knew he had that gift by his senior year at Washington.
"We were playing Arizona and we drew up a play, and the play wasn't for me," he said. "We were down three and the play was for our three-point shooter. But I'm bringing the ball up and I was the senior -- there's no way I'm going to give this ball up to a sophomore to shoot the three. If we were going to lose, I didn't want that pressure on him. So I came up and good thing he was somewhat denied, and so, OK, now I'm going to take the shot. And it hit all net. And I could tell it was kind of a relief for him. But for me it was like, I've always felt like I'll handle that pressure, I can deal with not making that shot. I don't want that on any of my teammates, so I take pride in having the ball late in games."
Could he do the same things in the NBA? Roy found out during his second season in the closing seconds of regulation at Sacramento on a play designed for Zach Randolph.
"Zach popped and they denied him, so I popped and I think Juan Dixon or Jarrett Jack hit me -- and Zach couldn't get open so I went," Roy said. It was a 15-foot fallaway over John Salmons at the buzzer to force overtime in an eventual Portland win. "Ever since then, coach was like, 'I've got two guys -- I can go to Zach, I can go to Brandon.' I thought it made our team better. Even Zach started to have confidence in me. I felt like, 'Hey, I want this responsibility.' "
Those other plays appear mundane compared to the 30-footer Roy made at the buzzer early last season for a 101-99 win over the visiting Rockets. At 1.9 seconds, he'd hit a 21-foot turnaround for 98-96 lead, but then Roy fouled Yao Ming for a three-point play to give Houston the 99-98 advantage with 0.8 seconds to go. Yao's defense of the inbounds pass forced Roy out farther from the basket than he'd planned, and as a pair of defenders ran out at him, he hoisted up a high-arcing rainbow.
"That's how I wanted to shoot it -- when I'm in a gym by myself, that's how I shoot it, I feel like it has a better chance," he said. "When I caught that ball and I faded and I let go, I got off a clean look. When I saw just net, it didn't hit the rim. That's when I was shocked. I was like, 'Man, that didn't even rattle, that hit bottom.' That was crazy. That was a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
"I can't say I knew I was go to make that shot, but I just wanted a chance to make up for what I did. All I was thinking about was, Man, I can't have these people go home and I blew the game."
Right place at the right time. It's not as though they aren't trying their best earlier in the game. "Throughout the game you take shots, but I don't take them with that much confidence that I'm going to make it every time," Roy said. "But in the end, I'm only thinking make it. It doesn't even cross my mind that I'm going to miss it."
Playing for the Lakers has raised the standards for Derek Fisher, who has responded by becoming one of the most spectacular clutch shooters of his generation. He has rescued several playoff wins, including a crucial victory in Game 4 of the NBA Finals last June. "When you play for the Lakers, you know what the job is," he said. "With Jerry West and Magic [Johnson] and James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you start to understand your place in what all of this represents."
That's why Fisher looks up to Bryant for living up to that standard month after month for 14 years. He and Bryant approach winner-take-all shots in the same way, said Fisher, "in terms of the willingness or the desire or the confidence to make the shot. But I think the context is different. Because I know that his place in the game of basketball -- and his legacy and what he represents -- is different than mine. So each time he makes one of those plays, it's on a different scale when Kobe Bryant does it versus Derek Fisher or Sasha [Vujacic, their teammate] or even a Pau Gasol. It's just different. I don't know how many guys like Kobe that you can count in the history of our game, but they're just different guys. When Kobe does something, he has expectation that he can do it. He's supposed to do it. He has to do it. There's just a lot of stuff going on, and he, amazingly, can do it at a high rate, even with all of that stuff."
The shot in Boston was Bryant's fourth game-winner in two months. One of them was admittedly luck, an off-balance three-pointer in December that banked off the glass to turn a loss against Miami into a win. But the other three shots were the result of nothing more magical than practice, as he told a group of reporters last month after beating Sacramento with a corner three the night before. "The one last night, I've worked on that thousands of times, that's three-point catch-and-shoot," he said. "It's just a practice shot."
There was a little more to it than that. Bryant had been squeezed tight against the sideline, and Kings coach Paul Westphal, standing behind him, was looking down at Bryant's heels to make sure he stayed inbounds. "I'm sure he was because I could feel it, I was real close," Bryant said. "I had to make sure I kept those heels up. When I didn't hear the whistle, I just had to focus on knocking down the shot."
Bryant had never forgotten watching Sean Elliott tip-toe along the sideline before his last-second three in the playoffs 11 years ago.
"Then you're like, 'OK, that is a good way to get around that,' " he said. "That's what came into mind, being in the league 14 years. Better to be safe than sorry, so shoot it on my tippy-toes."
Such are the lessons that come with age.
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