- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
In selecting a shooter, free throw proficiency is a factor too. Bound as Shaquille O'Neal is for the Hall of Fame, the lifetime 52.4% foul shooter has never been a viable last-shot option because teams will play Hack-a- Shaq. San Antonio power forward Tim Duncan is only a 68.4% shooter from the line, so Gregg Popovich, coach of the defending champions and a master last-shot technician, prefers to give the ball to guards Tony Parker or Manu Gin�bili, who can slash through defenses. Gin�bili is also lethal when, after inbounding the ball, he gets it back while going full steam, approximating a running back hitting the hole.
Indeed, in many ways the inbounder plays the most significant role. (Two seasons ago Jackson was so concerned about his inbounds passer that he considered trading for forward Toni Kukoc, a former Bull whose career was winding down with the Milwaukee Bucks, just for last-shot throw-ins.) Before an inbounder becomes an active part of the play on the court—and often he'll wind up getting a return pass and taking the last shot himself—he must get the ball in within five seconds while his target is being grabbed or otherwise constrained, as referees are unlikely to call a foul in this situation. "Since you may not get a call on a low clock, the main thing you have to do is make every move forceful," says Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen, a recognized last-shot master over the last decade who had two game-winning three-pointers earlier this season. "If you're coming off a screen, you come hard. If you're beating someone into the lane, do it hard."
Once the ball is in play, there is also the question of whether to attack a specific defender. D'Antoni used to draw up plays with that in mind, then kick himself when the opposing coach took that player out of the game. So he stopped doing it. On the other hand, Denver Nuggets coach George Karl is known for going at a player who just missed a crucial free throw at the other end, figuring he might be depressed and distracted—the kick-'em-while-they're-down approach.
DEFENSIVELY, THE major last-shot considerations are these: If you're up three, should you deliberately foul to avoid a potential game-tying three-pointer? And no matter what the score is, should you stick with your defensive principles or try to scheme the play, perhaps with a matchup zone? There are no absolutes, but in general NBA teams do not foul and do not use gimmicks. "Guys in our league get shots off too quickly to deliberately foul," says an Eastern Conference coach. "You don't want to put the decision on whether or not a guy was shooting in the hands of a ref. They love to call continuation." And as far as switching up on defense, teams just aren't that good at it. If a player makes a tough last shot, so be it. But if someone is left wide open because of a lapse in an unfamiliar defensive alignment, the coach has some 'splaining to do.
The only defensive constant is that great players and likely last-shot takers receive more attention. It drives fans to distraction when their team seems to allow a known last-shot artist to get the ball. Why not simply keep it out of his hands? Because it's close to impossible to do that. Jordan's famous double-clutch jumper over Craig Ehlo to beat the Cavaliers in the decisive Game 5 of a first-round series in '89 followed a mad chase before the inbounds pass that approximated a game of tag. ("We called that the Michael-gets-the-ball-and-everyone-gets-the-f----out-of-the-way play," then Bulls coach Doug Collins said after the game.) Give a scorer any court space, and he will almost certainly get the ball; give an athlete like James a single screen when he's on the move, and he will always get the ball.
One stratagem is to "jump" a player—that is, let him get the ball then sic an extra man on him. In that March 26 game in Cleveland, Paul says he initially feared that Cleveland guard Delonte West, who was guarding inbounds passer Jannero Pargo, was going to join James in a double team. "Once they didn't do that," says Paul, "I knew I was O.K." But if a player gets the ball with an open floor, the defensive mind-set is generally not to come with double-team pressure too early, lest someone slip a screen and get an easy layup.
By and large, though, last-shot situations aren't about defense. They're about shooters and execution and heroics and dreams of long ago. "The game-winning shot I hit against New Jersey this season [on Nov. 12] was my first in the NBA," says Paul. "But I don't count it. There were 1.4 seconds left. Too much time. When I think of a last shot, I'm thinking ... 5-4-3 ... shot goes up ... 2-1 ... it goes in! ... Game over! Game over! ... I keep right on runnin' into the locker room." The MVP candidate has a faraway look. "That's the perfect last shot. Make it, and keep right on runnin'."