Timeouts are not always strategic. They can be instructional (reminding a shooter to bend his knees), motivational ("Give me one f------ stop!") and playful (D'Antoni once told an opposing player, "I hope they leave you in the game because I'm drawing this one up just for you"). In the waning moments of blowouts they can involve dinner plans. Former NBA coach Dick Motta used to go entire timeouts without saying a word, to let his players rest. Chuck Daly would repeat the same word over and over, often rebound.
The timing can be as important as the message. "Phil Jackson lets his teams play through a lot of stuff," says former Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an ESPN analyst. "But I remember a series in Houston when he took a timeout early in the fourth quarter, and on the next play we threw a lob to Steve Francis, and then he took another timeout. It was timeout, play, timeout. But that's the playoffs."
Each team gets six full timeouts per game, plus two 20-second timeouts, and in the playoffs that's not always enough. In the classic first-round series between the Bulls and the Celtics last season, Chicago's rookie coach, Vinny Del Negro, ran out of timeouts in each of the first two games and got burned when Ray Allen put Boston ahead by three with two seconds left in Game 2. If Del Negro had a timeout, he could have advanced the ball to half-court and brought in Ben Gordon, who was on the bench with 42 points. Instead, the Bulls could only muster a desperation heave.
Just signaling for a timeout can be tricky. In Game 5 of the 1976 Finals, John Havlicek scored to put the Celtics ahead by a point with one second left in double overtime, and fans at Boston Garden rushed the court. Suns coach John MacLeod was swarmed, but an alert young guard named Paul Westphal called timeout even though Phoenix had none left. Westphal was whistled for a technical, and the Celtics made the free throw, but the timeout enabled MacLeod to draw up an inbounds play from half-court, and Gar Heard's 20-foot turnaround sent the game to triple overtime, in which the Suns finally lost.
Players are not supposed to take charge of timeouts, but some get overcome, like Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, who has a habit of grabbing the grease board and drawing plays with his finger. And in Game 2 of the 1984 Finals, Larry Bird famously told Celtics coach K.C. Jones, "Give me the ball. I know what to do," to which Jones responded, "Shut up, Larry, I'm the coach of this team." Then he gave his instructions: "Inbound the ball, get it to Larry, and everybody else get out of the way."
In last-minute timeouts egos are on the line as much as games. Scottie Pippen is not the only player to be devastated when he was passed over for a final shot. In 1997 the Rockets had Barkley, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, and when they called plays for Olajuwon, Barkley and Drexler would sometimes run to his spot on the floor in hopes of swiping the ball. "We had to tell two of them to get out of there," says Elie, a guard on that team who is now a Sacramento assistant.
The NBA has done more than any major sport to bring the viewer into the huddle. Three years ago senior vice president of broadcasting Tom Carelli started a program in which coaches wear microphones for every nationally televised game, leading to some memorable sound bites, such as Phil Jackson telling Kobe Bryant this season, "Kobe, you're not activating the ball. Activate it. You're looking to make passes. You've got to do some scoring here."
Carelli had the support of Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, president of the Coaches Association, who likes to draw up three plays in timeouts and ask his team, "What do you guys think will work best?" Because Jason Kidd is the Dallas point guard, Carlisle can be confident that they'll be able to execute their choice.
Carlisle does not offer as many options on defense. In Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals last season, the Mavs led the Nuggets by two with eight seconds left and had a foul to give. Carlisle and his assistants told the players, "Foul, foul, foul." Guard Antoine Wright tried to mug Anthony after the inbounds pass, but no foul was called, and Anthony made a winning three.
With so much emphasis on play-calling, defense after timeouts can be overlooked. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Magic was the second-best team this season on offense and defense after timeouts, a tribute to coach Stan Van Gundy, who spends as much time thinking about his peers' plays as his own. "When we play the Wizards, for instance, we know they like to run a lob for Javale McGee out of timeouts," says Orlando forward Ryan Anderson. "So that's our focus."