Thursday May 14th, 2009

For a story about buzzer-beating "last shots" that ran in Sports Illustrated before the 2008 playoffs, I was fortunate enough to have been at a late-season game in Cleveland between the Cavaliers and Hornets. (Remember the Hornets? My pick to win the NBA title this year? Hope you didn't go to Vegas on that tip.)

Never were differing philosophies about buzzer-beating shots so borne out as in that game. Trailing by one point with time running down, the Cavs simply cleared out and gave the ball to LeBron James, who made a driving layup to put the Cavs up by one. Coach Mike Brown doesn't even have a name for that play. On the other hand, with time to counter, the Hornets got the ball to Chris Paul (of course), but had an option-rich play that ended with Paul getting the ball to a wide-open David West for a game-winning jumper.

It sounds like the Hornets' approach might be better and harder to defend. But I'm willing to bet that every NBA coach, if he were being honest, would rather have the one-big-player-for-the-big-moment option. He might have varying ways to get the ball to his main guy, and, yes, he may have an option if all else fails. But with the clock running down, the crowd on its feet, the defense ready to inflict bodily harm on any player who dares drive near the hoop, and the referees likely to swallow their whistles, you want the ball in the hands of the truly elite.

"You can put a lot of stuff on the blackboard," Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "But at the end of the day it's all about the player, not the play."

In this playoff season two players stand above all others in the big-shot respect -- the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and James. In that order. James has become a last-shot threat in the last two seasons; Bryant has been one for the last half-dozen or so years.

Now, having those two players alone does not win championships. Obviously. The Celtics took the measure of the Lakers last year, partly, one might argue, because they are a team with two cold-blooded, last-shot assassins in Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Both of those worthies, in fact, have already added to their big-shot bona fides with game-winners in the first round against the Bulls, the latter in Game 2, the former in Game 5. In Boston's next series, Glen "Big Baby" Davis also became Big Shot Davis when he hit a decisive buzzer-beater against the Magic in Game 4.

But if you get into a last-shot situation, my feeling is that having a Kobe or a LeBron still trumps even a team with multiple big-shot options. There's something about the simplicity and surety of the single option, something that cuts through the pressure of drawing up multiple options. Over the long run, it will be interesting to see, for example, what the Nuggets will do in their last-shot situations. Go to the proven Chauncey Billups, who already had a rep as Mr. Big Shot? Or rely on the younger Carmelo Anthony, who beat the Mavericks in Game 3 with a last-second jumper? My contention is that a which-one-to-go-to decision can be a liability for a coach, not an advantage.

"Some guys are just at another level that other players can't get to," said Derek Fisher, Bryant's backcourt mate. "Guys like Kobe and LeBron. Those are the ones you want to have the ball with the game on the line."

Now we'll all sit back and watch Sasha Vujacic hit a 15-footer to win the NBA championship.

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