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The Last Shot
April 21, 2008
Ten years after Michael Jordan ended the Finals with a bucket against the Jazz, a new wave of clutch performers will try to deliver when the game—or the series—is on the line
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April 21, 2008

The Last Shot

Ten years after Michael Jordan ended the Finals with a bucket against the Jazz, a new wave of clutch performers will try to deliver when the game—or the series—is on the line

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THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS are down 98--97 to the New Orleans Hornets on this March night, with 12.8 seconds to go. When the game's on the line, most coaches try to draw up a little magic on the grease board, but for Mike Brown there isn't much need for creativity. "O.K., you know what we're going to do," the Cavs' coach says as he sends his five back onto the court at Quicken Loans Arena after a timeout. Brown doesn't even have a name for the play he wants them to execute. � The ref hands the ball to guard Damon Jones for the inbounds pass from the hash mark near midcourt. After Jones slaps the leather with his left palm, center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, stationed at the free throw line, moves toward the basket and screens for forward LeBron James, who is flashing up from the right block. Swingman Wally Szczerbiak and forward Joe Smith head for the corners, to spread the floor and to establish themselves as options for perimeter shots. James brushes his defender off Ilgauskas and receives Smith's pass in the middle of the court, beyond the top of the key. No teammate comes near him. "LeBron prefers to take a shot with no screeners because he believes no [defender] can stay in front of him," says teammate Daniel Gibson. Says Brown, "You start drawing up back screens and pick-and-rolls, and you're just putting the defense in position to mess up the play."

James steals a glance at the clock, which shows that 10 seconds remain. Then he easily—way too easily, the Hornets will concede later—dribbles around Peja Stojakovic and double-teamer David West, gets into the lane and, before New Orleans center Tyson Chandler can come over to help, sinks a lefthanded layup that gives Cleveland a 99--98 lead with 7.7 seconds left.

The NBA postseason begins its long march on Saturday, and over the next two months there's a good chance that several games or even series will come down to last shots that are the product of imagination, timing and skill. James's bucket comes from a classic rendition of the last-shot play—the to-be-or-not-to-be version, as it were—in which a protagonist seizes center stage and gives the audience, and the defense, basketball's version of the soliloquy. Yes, the hero has some help: a coach who chooses a supporting cast; a screener who sets him free; and, in what's often an overlooked role, a reliable teammate to inbound the ball. But this last-shot scene boils down to a solitary man battling both the clock and a bevy of defenders, trying mightily to lift his team to victory and establish himself as one of those able, as Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson puts it, "to step into the moment."

At 23 James has already shown himself capable of such steps: In Game 5 of last year's Eastern Conference finals, his layup with 2.2 seconds left in double overtime beat the Detroit Pistons 109--107. Before that series King James would typically accept the invariable double or triple team at crunch time and pass the ball to a wide-open Cav, who would more often than not miss the shot (as forward Donyell Marshall did in Game 1 against the Pistons). Pundits began to view James's unwillingness to take the last shot as a character defect, criticism that was not only patently unfair but also downright nonsensical. James did have to learn, as Brown says, that "sometimes the wrong basketball play is the right play because he's LeBron James. Sometimes he has to keep [the ball] himself."

But the Hamlet approach is not the preferred one for the Hornets, who during a timeout in this game against Cleveland plot for the last last shot. "I have the privilege of options," says coach Byron Scott. "It depends on who's hot that game." He decides to let point guard Chris Paul work one-on-one off a high screen and make a penetrating move before deciding whether to shoot or pass. Taking the inbounds pass, Paul is guarded by James, who in last-shot moments likes to put the pressure on himself defensively, too. Paul uses the West screen, which momentarily stops James, and gets into the lane. James recovers and the lane closes, but Paul has already made his decision. Without looking, he flicks a backward pass to West, who is alone at the right elbow. West buries the 17-footer, and the Hornets win 100--99.

THERE ARE last shots and Last Shots. The true Last Shot is not one of those heavenly heaves that resonate through the years, such as Jerry West's 60-foot prayer that forced overtime in Game 3 of the 1970 Finals (in which, alas, his Lakers lost to the New York Knicks) or Robert Horry's three-point dagger off a tipped-back rebound that enabled Los Angeles to avoid elimination in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals. ( L.A. would beat the Sacramento Kings in seven.) Those buzzer-beaters were more art than science.

No, real Last Shots, which come with 10 seconds or less remaining, are the residue of design, set pieces that begin with an inbounds pass (usually after a timeout) and have the potential to win or tie a game. Four NBA championships in the last two decades have been decided by a bona fide Last Shot: Vinnie (the Microwave) Johnson's 15-footer with 0.7 seconds showing on the clock in Game 5 lifted Detroit past the Portland Trail Blazers in '90; John Paxson's three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left in Game 6 of the '93 Finals beat the Phoenix Suns and gave the Chicago Bulls their first three-peat; Steve Kerr's foul line jumper with 5.0 seconds left in Game 6 of the '97 Finals handed the Bulls their fifth title, over the Utah Jazz; and Michael Jordan's famed "push-off" jumper with 5.2 seconds left in Game 6 in '98 capped Chicago's second three-peat, again against the Jazz.

Teams generally have four to six last-shot sets, "a smorgasbord you tweak from time to time," says Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. As formidable a last-shot master as guard Kobe Bryant is, the Lakers have several plays, Jackson's favorite being something he calls What the F---. It harks back to his days as a Knicks forward in the 1970s, when coach Red Holzman couldn't remember the name of an effective play and took a linguistic shortcut. "It's got a certain elegance to it," says Jackson. "Plus it doesn't take much time to call."

Depending on how many seconds a team has to work with, there are some general guidelines, according to Pistons coach Flip Saunders. With five ticks or less, get the ball to a catch-and-shoot specialist or a player who can get a good look by making a single attacking move. With six to 13 seconds, have two players run a pick-and-roll, with the option of involving others. With more than 13 a coach's options expand, but the most important factor is the score: In a tie game, run the clock all the way down; trailing, let fire with five seconds left so you have the opportunity to follow a miss.

Whether to call a timeout to diagram a last shot is fodder for announcers more than anything else. Almost every coach will burn one with eight or fewer seconds remaining, because the odds of scoring on a set play are better than on racing pell-mell up the court. With 10 or more seconds, however, a coach is more liable to just let 'em play, particularly if the right player has the ball. So if you see a coach leap from the bench to get a timeout with substantial clock left, you can bet he has a specific player in mind to take the last shot—and it's not the guy handling the rock.

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