:04 The Throw-in
You send the ball boy back to the locker room for your antacid pills as you watch your team get the ball inbounds a split second before the referee calls a five-second violation. The throw-in is the most overlooked aspect of last-second plays and the point at which they most often break down. "You can have something drawn up that's pure genius, and it doesn't make any difference because you can't get the ball in," says Daly. "Even when you get it in, if the defense has forced you to get the ball to someone you don't want to have it or in a place you don't want to have it, the play can break down before it starts."
That's why a good inbounds passer is essential. Forwards Danny Manning of Phoenix, Derrick McKey of Indiana and Robert Horry of the Lakers are among the best in the league, and Fitch has had two of the better ones of the past, Cedric Maxwell in Boston and Rodney McCray in Houston. The job requires many of the same qualities needed by a quarterback facing a pass rush: The passer generally must be tall enough to find a passing lane when he's getting "tigered" (pressured by a defender only inches away), and he must be decisive enough to act quickly yet calm enough to remember that the five seconds he has are longer than they might seem.
Sometimes he also has to make a particularly difficult pass. Grant Hill made perhaps the best inbounds pass of last season in a Feb. 28 game against Boston. Three tenths of a second remained and the Detroit Pistons trailed 84-82. Hill inbounded the ball at midcourt and tossed a perfect alley-oop to Lindsey Hunter for the layup that tied the game, and Detroit went on to win in overtime, 106-100. But throw-ins don't have to be spectacular to be effective. Fitch remembers several last-second baskets by Bird that were made possible by Maxwell, who waited until just the right moment to deliver the inbounds pass. "Larry would catch and shoot, the ball would go in the hole, we'd win, and everybody would hug Larry," Fitch says. "Nobody ever hugs the guy who throws it in."
:03 The Play
You wonder if the opposing coach will recognize your play as the one he ran against you last year. Coaches steal shamelessly. Need a play designed to get an open three-pointer in a hurry? Pull out the tapes of Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown's teams when he was with Indiana. "Larry has more three-point stuff than anybody in the league," says Daly. If you need an inbounds play, Fitch is your man. He has MOBs, BOBs and SOBs (which, he's quick to point out, doesn't refer to what the players think of the coach)—Midcourt Out-of-Bounds plays, Baseline Out-of-Bounds and Sideline Out-of-Bounds. "He has something for every situation," says Miami Heat trainer Ron Culp, who worked under Fitch when they were with the Cleveland Cavaliers. "I mean, he has one for 'Three seconds to go, a typhoon is about to hit, and we're shooting at the north goal.' "
Fitch admits to appropriating some of his colleagues' ideas over the years. When the Houston Rockets' Ralph Sampson hit a turnaround jumper at the buzzer to oust the Lakers from the 1986 playoffs, his basket came on a play that Fitch, the Houston coach at the time, had seen the Denver Nuggets use against his team in the previous series.
Once the ball is inbounded, the rest of the play is usually simple. With the ball in the hands of the player most capable of creating his own shot, a spot-up shooter takes position along the three-point arc, and the players on the weak side go to the basket, looking for a pass or a rebound. "One of the last things you tell your guys is to crash the boards," Daly says. "You also want your shooter to make sure he gets something up with a couple of seconds remaining, to give you a chance to get that follow shot. Very often you don't score on the initial shot, but you get it on the offensive rebound."
:02 The Defense
Your players get the ball, and you watch them execute the play exactly as you have diagrammed it. Well, close to how you drew it up. O.K., not quite the way you showed them. "Very seldom is the play run to perfection," says Carlesimo. "Sometimes that's because the defense forces you out of it, but sometimes it's just because in the heat of the moment, one of your guys goes left when he's supposed to go right."