On playgrounds across the world, basketball players with a live dribble and an active imagination give themselves a countdown. In doing so they tap into the game's inherent drama. Any highly skilled athlete with a ball in his hands is capable of amazing feats. What turns sport into theater, however, is that ticking clock:
There's a magic in those waning moments that can't be found anywhere else. As such, the players who conquer desperation to thrive in that space are revered as heroes of the big play. Every team needs an option for offense when the clock runs short, be it against the pressure of the shot clock or the game clock itself. Today we turn to some of the NBA's most effective in that regard this season, each unique in the way they navigate the same few fleeting seconds.
For all relevant stats, late-clock possessions are defined as those completed with four seconds or fewer remaining on the shot clock or game clock.
The days of Davis as an offensive dependent are over. Already the 21-year-old big man is an authority in isolation, where he ranks among the most efficient scorers in the game. There is no recourse once he faces up. Davis' jumper has matured to the point that it must be honored, empowering him as a triple threat. From there, even elite-level defenders have a hell of a time keeping in front of him as he attempts to slink by:
Credit to Davis for building on footwork. With the quickness and length that Davis has, every jab step is more of a haymaker. It knocks the defender off balance and out of his way, forcing a desperate foul or rushed rotation from the defense in response. This yields free throws on some 18 percent of Davis' late-clock possessions, per Synergy Sports – a crazy amount given how the exercise lends itself to fading, untouched jumpers. Davis just isn't the sort to rely on that particular tool and scores all the better for it.
It also doesn't hurt that Davis tends to stay in motion. There is a learned basketball habit for players to keep still while a teammate isolates. It's a tendency at least in part born of futility – a surrender in acknowledgement that they won't likely get the ball anyway. Beyond that, cutting at the wrong time could disrupt a move in progress or bring a second defender into the picture. And so four offensive players freeze in place, positioned to do little more than spot up.
Davis manages to be active while steering clear of these pitfalls, putting himself in a position to curl into a running layup or grab an offensive rebound when things go poorly for some isolating teammate. He's still very much a part of the play even when he appears not to be. That kind of activity tends to foster efficient scoring, if for no other reason than it allows him to catch and move in more opportunistic stride.
This is not a misprint. Of all the players to use a significant number of late-clock possessions, Miles (1.2 points per possession) has been the most effective per data from Synergy Sports. In this, Miles outranks superstars at their own game. He's a shot-hunter, too; Miles noticeably seeks out the ball as Pacer possessions inch toward the red zone, keen to create for a team that doesn't have many alternatives.
He does this because he's damn good at it. A team with a superstar shot creator likely wouldn't lean on Miles as the Pacers have, but in these situations Miles makes for a fine star by proxy. He can pull a jumper without having his feet set, making him adaptable to positioning and coverage. He has a quick, high release point, allowing him to rise and fire over outstretched arms. Miles can also get a lot done with only a dribble or two – a perfect skill for when time is a factor:
That maximization of the time allotted shouldn't go overlooked. The NBA is loaded with skilled shot creators, some of whom tighten their games under the pressure of timing. Such an understandable priority is placed on beating the clock that players forget how much can be accomplished in a few seconds to better create space. Miles' control in those situations is masterful. It doesn't matter if he catches at a standstill or while curling around an assortment of screens – the Pacer wing always seems to have the presence of mind to make a move that facilitates his attempt.
In theory, a depleted shot clock should make a skilled offensive star easier to defend. Time itself becomes a boundary; it takes more than a few seconds to orchestrate a pick-and-roll or execute some more elaborate move, and with every passing second the offensive player's attempt becomes slightly more predictable.
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This just isn't the case with Curry, who is somehow even more lethal as the clock winds down. One can almost sense the nervous energy of the defense when Curry has no choice but to shoot. It could happen at any moment and from any range without the slightest warning. That he's able to line up and fire off a shot so quickly mimics the effect of an uncontested look while still guarded.
Defenders tend to overreact in response. Curry's late-clock dribble moves are more easily sold than usual, as any could theoretically end with a dead-eye jumper. This leads to lunges in coverage on even the slightest of Curry's hesitations. Over the past year he's learned to more directly attack in response by flooring the ball and mixing it up inside:
Curry drives more than one might expect against a short clock precisely because of what one might expect. He's a shooter – the league's best, in fact. That he's defended as such gives him opportunity to play against type, rounding out his improvisation to take advantage of any situation.
Meet Houston's pressure release. When a James Harden drive draws three defenders to the spot, it's often Motiejunas who springs open. When a Dwight Howard post-up goes nowhere, it might be Motiejunas that gives it life with a back cut. All season long Motiejunas has thrived in making something from nothing, and his commitment to playing full possessions shines through in his short-clock performance. Only Miles and Curry have managed to garner more points from every such possession this season, per Synergy Sports, and even they can't touch Motiejunas' 64.6 late-clock effective field goal percentage.
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The key for Motiejunas is the working of two angles difficult for big men: range shooting and ball handling. Overall, Motiejunas is attempting far fewer jumpers this season than in years past. Houston's designs of testing him as a more considerable stretch option appear faded, instead allowing Motiejunas to work inside as he can and space the floor selectively from the corners. Over half of Motiejunas' long-range shots are launched from the corners this season, a good chunk at the end of the clock just as a possession seems to have run dry:
Upon making a catch anywhere else on the floor, however, Motiejunas is quick to work off the dribble toward more preferable ends. It would be easy for him to settle into a mid-range jumper for a shot he can hit but hasn't consistently. So instead Motiejunas makes a move into a running hook shot or ducks in for an unexpected post-up:
There are times where Motiejunas' job is as simple as catch-and-shoot or catch-and-finish. The reason he's having such a terrific year, though, is because of all he can offer beyond those rudimentary responsibilities.
It's Jefferson that we find in this category most naturally, as both his and the Hornets' offensive rhythms tend to go deep into the shot clock. Jefferson just isn't a quick-move post player. He holds the ball – often palmed and extended in one hand – and deliberates. This isn't necessarily the healthiest tendency on a team level, but for Jefferson it works.
It also makes all the more apparent just how difficult it is to peg Jefferson's moves on the block. Charlotte doesn't have the spacing to give Jefferson much room or the flow to post him in an especially productive rhythm. Yet even with those factors weighing on him and the clock on his back, Jefferson takes his time and wiggles his way to the rim. His work is so polished that it's slippery:
On a basic level, it's hard enough to keep Jefferson squared. When facing up he can attack an opponent on either side (or knock down a jumper), and he's strong enough to power his way in if his defender assumes the wrong position. Once inside, his exaggerated shot fake is a best-seller – sending defenders into the air to give access to a new angle on Jefferson's step-through. The clock doesn't bother him. Interior clutter doesn't bother him. Jefferson simply goes on his way, deep into the shot clock, with a move and counter for every occasion.