Managing the final minutes with a lead
Sooner or later, every team faces a single “moment of truth.”
A close game, a slim lead, a minute on the clock and possession of the ball combine to create a pressure situation that’s the difference between winning and losing. You want your team to slow down the game without turning over the ball. At worst, this results in getting to the free-throw line. At best, this results in simply running out the clock.
And even in the states that use a shot clock in high school, the ability to squeeze as much time out of every possession in the final minutes in a close game is a significant advantage.
There are many ways to approach the delay game with Dean Smith’s famous four-corner offense, an obvious reference point, but there’s much more to surviving the moment of truth than drawing up the Xs and Os.
When to slow down
First, when is the best time to start slowing down the game? Countless games have been lost because a team spread the floor and went into its delay too soon, shifting momentum and allowing a seemingly assured victory to slip away.
One thing to consider is that a team that plays at a slow tempo is able to go into kill-the-clock mode much sooner than an up-tempo fast-break team. The reason? The slow-down team is not really changing gears offensively, but the fast-break team is. Such a radical change of pace for the up-tempo group is much more likely to create a shift in momentum, because the players are suddenly out of their comfort zone.
Regardless, it’s wise to have several strategies to employ when attempting to run out the clock. One method of killing the clock could best be described as a “stealth” delay game. Using this strategy the offense spaces out to the NBA 3-point line to create extra room, then runs its regular half-court offense with a layup as the only shot option. This allows the offense to continue to attack for a score, and maintain an aggressive offensive mindset — something that is key to keeping momentum.
There are varying degrees of stealth mode, which again is much easier for a slow-down team to execute efficiently than a team that’s used to shooting after two passes. For example, you may allow a “good” shot (as you define it) to be taken after an established amount of time has elapsed, but a layup is allowed at any time. Or a layup or shot is allowed to be taken after a predetermined number of passes have been made.
The main objective with this approach, however, is for the offense to continue to attack with the desire to score, but because of the shooting restrictions a fair amount of time runs off the clock before a shot it taken. Of course, the offense must take care of the ball and not turn it over.
A good team in stealth mode usually can run off two minutes of time — though this does not mean that the team goes two entire minutes without a shot, but rather the offense successfully controls the ball for two minutes and manages to attempt two layups.
Hold & stall
A more common option in the delay game is simply to hold the ball and to force the opponent to aggressively attack defensively, but for this to work some form of delay offense or, if possible, the team’s normal offense must be spread out over the entire half-court area.
This changes if it’s imperative that the opponent not have a single possession of the ball — for example, the offense is ahead by one point with seconds remaining — but it’s still wise to allow players to attempt a wide-open layup. Invariably, such opportunities arise because the defense must gamble and pressure, and a well-executed delay offense produces layups. To not take them is risky, because there’s a better chance a team turns over the ball running a delay game than there is of a player missing a simple layup.
Defenders, of course, don’t just stand back and let the offense kill the clock. They usually deliberately foul an offensive player to force a free-throw attempt to regain possession of the ball either after the missed or made free throw. When this stage of the game has been reached, it makes sense to have a designated “free-throw” or “hands” unit that kills the clock. This group of five should be good free-throw shooters, good ball handlers and decent defenders.
Regardless of who’s on the floor, or the particular late-game strategy employed, instruct players that the best free-throw shooter and the best ball handler must seek out the ball and be in possession of the ball as much as possible. This means players must be aware of not only their own strengths and weaknesses, but also the strengths and weaknesses of their fellow teammates.
It’s also important to be aware of how many fouls the opposition has committed. If the other team is not in bonus, having good free-throw shooters on the court — or working to get them the ball — is irrelevant. In this situation, the goal is to run as much time off the clock as possible, rather than making sure good free-throw shooters have the ball.
As with every other tactic, practicing late-game situations is important. Have defenders commit harder-than-normal fouls to simulate the frustration fouls likely to be made late in a game. Also, in practice, do not call every foul. This forces offensive players to not expect to get bailed out by foul calls, as it’s hard to predict what officials are going to call (and not call) in the closing minutes of a tight game.
Another good way to practice killing the clock is to play 5-on-7 or 5-on-8. This forces the offensive players to meet passes, read the defense accurately, and also forces the point guard to return to the ball.
Another area to practice is having the point guard understand when a timeout is necessary. In delay-game situations, give your point guard the autonomy to call timeout if he or she senses a turnover is about to take place, or a weak free-throw shooter is about to be fouled.
Still, even the best team is eventually forced to give up possession of the ball in a kill-the-clock situation due to a turnover or free throws — so don’t overlook getting back on defense.
Players must not become so focused on executing the delay game that they forget to get back on defense or lose track of the score and allow a 3-pointer when a 2-pointer doesn’t make as much of a difference in the final outcome.
And the final outcome, of course, is what every strategy is all about — and those teams that control the last minutes of a close game are going to be much happier with the final outcome than those who don’t.