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Before Nuggets coach Adrian Dantley stepped onto the court last Saturday night at the Pepsi Center, he tucked a list of 20 plays into the breast pocket of his 42 extra long. The list included an isolation play for point guard Chauncey Billups, a rip screen for center Nenê and a zipper cut designed to free forward Carmelo Anthony at the top of the circle for a three-pointer. "I've got to keep these close by," Dantley said, patting his lapel. They are the plays he likes to call during timeouts, when he sits on a folding chair in front of the Denver bench, a dozen sets of eager eyes riveted on him. In the two months since George Karl took his leave of absence to undergo neck and throat cancer treatments and Dantley was named the interim replacement, there have been moments he froze in front of all those eyes and said his mind "went blank." And that was just in the regular season.
Last Saturday, Dantley coached his first game in the playoffs, in which every timeout is a summit. The image of the NBA coach scribbling hieroglyphics on a grease board while players scrutinize the markings like directions on a treasure map is as much a part of the postseason as white towels swirling in the stands. In a first-round series like Nuggets-Jazz, which pits two teams with identical records against each other, the slightest strategic advantage can make the ultimate difference. In other words, plays called during timeouts need to yield points.
Late in the third quarter Denver trailed Utah 82--79, and Dantley had every reason to freeze again. Chris (Birdman) Andersen was flapping his arms at the scorer's table, a South Park character was screaming on the JumboTron, and the mountain lion mascot named Rocky was pretending to assault a cameraman at half-court. On the opposite bench was Utah coach Jerry Sloan, veteran of 192 playoff games, who does not need a list of timeout plays in his breast pocket. "It's in his head," says Jazz assistant Phil Johnson. Sloan has even developed a seating chart for players during timeouts: center in the middle, guards to his left, forwards to his right.
Dantley blocked out the distractions, checked his list and found what every coach is looking for: a way to get his best player the ball against an inferior defender. J.R. Smith inbounded to Billups, who fed the 6'8" Anthony in the post. Anthony backed down 6'5" rookie Wesley Matthews, forcing a foul and two free throws. The play portended a tidal wave, as the Nuggets reeled off 47 points over the next 15 minutes and rolled to a 126--113 win. "I think I'm getting better at this," Dantley said. And he must, for every coach at this time of year is judged on his mastery of the TO.
NBA players sit through more than 1,000 timeouts every regular season, the vast majority of which feature lectures on taking better care of the ball and getting back more quickly in transition. "Guys get a little brain-dead," says Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. By March a glance at the bench during a second-quarter timeout can reveal one player miming a jumper, another spinning a basketball, a third howling at the Kiss Cam. When D'Antoni was coaching the Suns, he once diagrammed a play only to find half the team staring at a video on the scoreboard. "Let me know when it's over," D'Antoni told his players. "Then we'll talk."
The spike in intensity from regular season to playoffs is perhaps most evident in the body language during timeouts. "In the regular season you call a play in a timeout and you sometimes have to ask, 'You got it?'" D'Antoni says. "In the playoffs you don't have to ask. They're foaming at the mouth." Huddles get tighter. Coaches yell louder. Players listen closer. "What happens during a timeout," says Mario Elie, who won three titles with the Rockets and the Spurs, "can change your whole season." Elie knows from experience. He was playing for Houston in 1995 when a play drawn up by coach Rudy Tomjanovich in a timeout set up a three-pointer by Kenny Smith with 1.6 seconds left in Game 1 of the Finals, which forced overtime and spurred the Rockets to a sweep of the Magic.
The NBA is a players' league, with its freelanced fast breaks and improvised alley-oops, but the timeouts belong to the coaches. While Sloan immediately takes a knee in front of his bench, the Lakers' Phil Jackson first meets with his assistants on the floor, a tradition he started with the Bulls because he could not be heard over the blaring music at Chicago Stadium. Jackson goes to the players only after he has figured out exactly what he is going to say, a tack that has gained numerous imitators, not to mention delay-of-game warnings.
Coaches like to mull over their options and generally wait until 30 seconds remain to call their chosen play. Karl's pet play is Hammer, in which a ball handler drives the baseline and a big man sets a back screen on the weak side, setting up a three-pointer in the far corner. Late in games, coaches will often take a set they've run all night and give it a twist to cross up the defense. "Let's say we've been running a play where I pick for you and you shoot," says D'Antoni. "Now maybe we'll run a variation that looks the same, but instead of me picking for you, you back-pick for me and I go in for the lob."
The most memorable timeouts are the ones that produce plays no one has ever seen before. Paul Westphal coached the Suns in 1993, and when they were down by one with 0.6 seconds left in an April game in Portland, he came up with the cockamamie idea to have center Oliver Miller throw an in-bounds pass from half-court off the backboard, Cedric Ceballos leap toward the glass but let the ball sail over his fingertips, and Charles Barkley gather it on the short-hop and bank it in at the buzzer. The play worked, with one wrinkle. "Our guys ran around afterward like lovers in a deodorant commercial," Westphal says, and point guard Kevin Johnson injured his knee in the celebration.
The easiest way to evaluate coaches is in the possession immediately following a timeout. "I've always felt that's when you earn your money," says TNT analyst and former NBA coach Doug Collins. By that reasoning Alvin Gentry is in line for a raise. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Gentry's Suns ranked first this season in points per possession after timeouts. The Nuggets were fourth—impressive considering that they have played without Karl since mid-February.