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]
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.
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.