Planning for late-game situations
Factors like timeouts, defensive matchups and personnel must be considered
How many basketball games have you watched or been involved in where the outcome of a close game is determined by just a couple of plays?
Both teams may be equal in talent and skill, with the only difference being the outcome of one or two possessions. It’s also possible that one of the teams has less talent, but one moment secures a key possession and wins the game.
These possessions could come near the end of quarters or halves. Those offensive possessions not only can produce points for your team, but holding the ball also prevents the opposition from scoring.
Preserving the ball for the last shot could result in a significant swing in the score while preserving momentum and confidence. Having two or four end-of-period possessions should be looked upon as invaluable in the preparation for that game.
If the various offensive situations that could take place during a game have not been carefully thought out, analyzed and practiced, a team could only win this type of contest with a play diagrammed for the first time in a frenzied timeout. Winning matters, so a coach should not run with a play that the staff and players are not familiar with.
If teams spends countless hours on fundamentals and skills, scenarios that may determine a winner should be frequently rehearsed. These plays should already be seen and understood before games. This gives the team an opportunity to be prepared for these critical situations.
There are several methods and philosophies that have been successful. Once the plan is developed, it must be taught and sold to players. The purpose of this article is to challenge each reader to be prepared for those situations that arise during games.
Before creating late-game strategies, there are other ideas and philosophies that must to be developed. Does your team have baseline out-of-bounds plays that work against man-to-man and zone defenses? And does your team have specific plays from the sideline that can be run against the same defenses?
Create a philosophy on whether players should call a timeout early to maintain possession as they fall out of bounds or get tied up after a loose ball. That helps determine whether those timeouts are saved for late-game situations.
If coaches do not have a set philosophy and teach it to the players, the outcome is unpredictable. Coaches must decide whether they want players to make important decisions themselves.
Delaying the game
Consider implementing a delay offense. Also consider who can take a last-second shot, and what kind of shot can be taken and when. There are other factors, like whether to allow time for an offensive rebound, what defense the team will fall back into, pressing options and defensive matchups.
Teams must recognize the score and what types of shots they should and shouldn’t take.
Don’t expect players to read your mind and know exactly what shot you want. One thought is if the score is tied or separated by two points, a high-percentage shot or a shot that could draw a foul should be taken. Others believe in immediately taking a 3-pointer. Obviously, if your team is down by three, your team needs the best perimeter shooter to get an open look. If your team is down by four, coaches must determine whether they want a 3-pointer or a 2-pointer followed by a press and foul.
A definite philosophy should be agreed upon by the coaching staff during the preseason and taught to all players. That way, there is no hesitation in their minds as to what to do during intense situations.
Transitioning after a score
One of the most important decisions a coaching staff should make is what to do in the final seconds after the opposition ties the game or pulls ahead. The size of the lead should affect the coach’s philosophy.
Players must have a grasp on how long it takes to dribble down court for a driving layup or to the top of the key. Consider counting the number of dribbles and timing this transition during practice. Players should understand where the 3-point shooters are on the court, and buzzer-beating shots should be practiced beforehand.
Transitioning with a deficit
Does your team have a strategy to react in the final minutes of the game when falling behind by four points or more? A coaching staff might not have practiced all of the various scenarios that could play out in a game, but he or she should have a mental plan on what to do.
After the opposition scores late, you could call a timeout and set up a play. Many coaches adhere to that practice because they can organize their team for a scripted play. This is reasonable, but the timeout also gives the opposition an opportunity to organize and substitute better defensive players, set up a full-court press or change half-court defenses.
Without a timeout, the opposition can’t make adjustments. Consider who will benefit more from the timeout — offense or defense? Make sure to have a sound philosophy behind this decision.
By not calling a timeout, the offense must push the ball down court and execute a predetermined play. The defense can’t substitute new defenders, will struggle to create full-court pressure and won’t effectively establish a half-court defense. In fact, not calling a timeout sometimes catches the opposition off balance and allows for favorable matchups for the offense.
Consider whether your offense is prepared enough to execute a last-second play in a high-pressure situation.
When your team calls a timeout and you must travel the length of the court, there are two factors to consider. The first is that the offense may not be allowed to run the baseline. Not running the baseline takes away important options that an offense can incorporate into their philosophy.
The second scenario is determining whether the offense has any timeouts. If so, any pass receiver that catches the ball in the frontcourt could call a timeout. This allows the offense to reorganize and run a sideline out-of-bounds play that starts closer to the basket.
A coach must know which scenario exists and how they are going to handle these critical decisions. He or she must devise a play that could handle the surprise defensive change by the opposition. Each play should have a primary and a secondary shooter in case the first option is removed by the defense.
Develop a free-throw strategy for scenarios when your team is down by two points or more. Do you have any special “rebounding stunts” and intentional-miss plays? Do your rebounders know how to beat the defensive box-outs, and does your free-throw shooter know how to miss a free throw?
Also, consider whether you can delay the opposition when inbounding the ball after your team has made a free throw.
It’s important to have a plan of action when you want your offense to milk the clock. Develop a strategy dependent upon the time and score to determine when to start your stalling tactics. You should have an offense designed for that purpose, along with a complementary defense that corresponds to the offense you’re using in that situation.
Ask your staff whether you have special inbounds plays to get the ball to your best free-throw shooter when you’re leading and facing the press. Also, take advantage of the times when you are legally allowed to run the baseline out of bounds.
Create a plan for situations when you have the lead late and you can inbound the ball to either your best free-throw shooter or best ball handler. The coaching staff and players should agree on the best player in each of these categories. If not, there could be a breakdown. Develop a plan for how you determine the best players in those situations and how you convince the team of your opinion.
Instituting a specific plan for late-game situations requires effort, imagination and creativity by the coaching staff. This plan is more fundamentally sound and effective when developed during the offseason instead of during a game. Winning and losing can depend on one decision made by coaches or players. Stealing just a few games that could have been losses can fuel an entire season.
Remember the cliché, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” This is your opportunity to be “lucky” in those close games.
John Kimble coached basketball for 20 years in Illinois and Florida, accumulating more than 340 wins. He has authored five coaching books, 90 articles and created 28 coaching videos. He can be found at www.CoachJohnKimble.com.