The Cleveland Cavaliers are down 98-97 to the New Orleans Hornets on this March night, with 12.8 seconds to go. When the game's on the line, most coaches try to draw up a little magic on the grease board, but for Mike Brown there isn't much need for creativity. "O.K., you know what we're going to do," the Cavs' coach says as he sends his five back onto the court at Quicken Loans Arena after a timeout. Brown doesn't even have a name for the play he wants them to execute.
The ref hands the ball to guard Damon Jones for the inbounds pass from the hash mark near midcourt. After Jones slaps the leather with his left palm, center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, stationed at the free throw line, moves toward the basket and screens for forward LeBron James, who is flashing up from the right block. Swingman Wally Szczerbiak and forward Joe Smith head for the corners, to spread the floor and to establish themselves as options for perimeter shots. James brushes his defender off Ilgauskas and receives Smith's pass in the middle of the court, beyond the top of the key. No teammate comes near him. "LeBron prefers to take a shot with no screeners because he believes no [defender] can stay in front of him," says teammate Daniel Gibson. Says Brown, "You start drawing up back screens and pick-and-rolls, and you're just putting the defense in position to mess up the play."
James steals a glance at the clock, which shows that 10 seconds remain. Then he easily -- way too easily, the Hornets will concede later -- dribbles around Peja Stojakovic and double-teamer David West, gets into the lane and, before New Orleans center Tyson Chandler can come over to help, sinks a lefthanded layup that gives Cleveland a 99-98 lead with 7.7 seconds left.
The NBA postseason begins its long march on Saturday, and over the next two months there's a good chance that several games or even series will come down to last shots that are the product of imagination, timing and skill. James's bucket comes from a classic rendition of the last-shot play -- the to-be-or-not-to-be version, as it were -- in which a protagonist seizes center stage and gives the audience, and the defense, basketball's version of the soliloquy. Yes, the hero has some help: a coach who chooses a supporting cast; a screener who sets him free; and, in what's often an overlooked role, a reliable teammate to inbound the ball. But this last-shot scene boils down to a solitary man battling both the clock and a bevy of defenders, trying mightily to lift his team to victory and establish himself as one of those able, as Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson puts it, "to step into the moment."
At 23 James has already shown himself capable of such steps: In Game 5 of last year's Eastern Conference finals, his layup with 2.2 seconds left in double overtime beat the Detroit Pistons 109-107. Before that series King James would typically accept the invariable double or triple team at crunch time and pass the ball to a wide-open Cav, who would more often than not miss the shot (as forward Donyell Marshall did in Game 1 against the Pistons). Pundits began to view James's unwillingness to take the last shot as a character defect, criticism that was not only patently unfair but also downright nonsensical. James did have to learn, as Brown says, that "sometimes the wrong basketball play is the right play because he's LeBron James. Sometimes he has to keep [the ball] himself."
But the Hamlet approach is not the preferred one for the Hornets, who during a timeout in this game against Cleveland plot for the last last shot. "I have the privilege of options," says coach Byron Scott. "It depends on who's hot that game." He decides to let point guard Chris Paul work one-on-one off a high screen and make a penetrating move before deciding whether to shoot or pass. Taking the inbounds pass, Paul is guarded by James, who in last-shot moments likes to put the pressure on himself defensively, too. Paul uses the West screen, which momentarily stops James, and gets into the lane. James recovers and the lane closes, but Paul has already made his decision. Without looking, he flicks a backward pass to West, who is alone at the right elbow. West buries the 17-footer, and the Hornets win 100-99.
There are last shots and Last Shots. The true Last Shot is not one of those heavenly heaves that resonate through the years, such as Jerry West's 60-foot prayer that forced overtime in Game 3 of the 1970 Finals (in which, alas, his Lakers lost to the New York Knicks) or Robert Horry's three-point dagger off a tipped-back rebound that enabled Los Angeles to avoid elimination in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals. (L.A. would beat the Sacramento Kings in seven.) Those buzzer-beaters were more art than science.
No, real Last Shots, which come with 10 seconds or less remaining, are the residue of design, set pieces that begin with an inbounds pass (usually after a timeout) and have the potential to win or tie a game. Four NBA championships in the last two decades have been decided by a bona fide Last Shot: Vinnie (the Microwave) Johnson's 15-footer with 0.7 seconds showing on the clock in Game 5 lifted Detroit past the Portland Trail Blazers in '90; John Paxson's three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left in Game 6 of the '93 Finals beat the Phoenix Suns and gave the Chicago Bulls their first three-peat; Steve Kerr's foul line jumper with 5.0 seconds left in Game 6 of the '97 Finals handed the Bulls their fifth title, over the Utah Jazz; and Michael Jordan's famed "push-off" jumper with 5.2 seconds left in Game 6 in '98 capped Chicago's second three-peat, again against the Jazz.
Teams generally have four to six last-shot sets, "a smorgasbord you tweak from time to time," says Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. As formidable a last-shot master as guard Kobe Bryant is, the Lakers have several plays, Jackson's favorite being something he calls What the F---. It harks back to his days as a Knicks forward in the 1970s, when coach Red Holzman couldn't remember the name of an effective play and took a linguistic shortcut. "It's got a certain elegance to it," says Jackson. "Plus it doesn't take much time to call."
Depending on how many seconds a team has to work with, there are some general guidelines, according to Pistons coach Flip Saunders. With five ticks or less, get the ball to a catch-and-shoot specialist or a player who can get a good look by making a single attacking move. With six to 13 seconds, have two players run a pick-and-roll, with the option of involving others. With more than 13 a coach's options expand, but the most important factor is the score: In a tie game, run the clock all the way down; trailing, let fire with five seconds left so you have the opportunity to follow a miss.
Whether to call a timeout to diagram a last shot is fodder for announcers more than anything else. Almost every coach will burn one with eight or fewer seconds remaining, because the odds of scoring on a set play are better than on racing pell-mell up the court. With 10 or more seconds, however, a coach is more liable to just let 'em play, particularly if the right player has the ball. So if you see a coach leap from the bench to get a timeout with substantial clock left, you can bet he has a specific player in mind to take the last shot -- and it's not the guy handling the rock.
In selecting a shooter, free throw proficiency is a factor too. Bound as Shaquille O'Neal is for the Hall of Fame, the lifetime 52.4% foul shooter has never been a viable last-shot option because teams will play Hack-a-Shaq. San Antonio power forward Tim Duncan is only a 68.4% shooter from the line, so Gregg Popovich, coach of the defending champions and a master last-shot technician, prefers to give the ball to guards Tony Parker or Manu Ginóbili, who can slash through defenses. Ginóbili is also lethal when, after inbounding the ball, he gets it back while going full steam, approximating a running back hitting the hole.
Indeed, in many ways the inbounder plays the most significant role. (Two seasons ago Jackson was so concerned about his inbounds passer that he considered trading for forward Toni Kukoc, a former Bull whose career was winding down with the Milwaukee Bucks, just for last-shot throw-ins.) Before an inbounder becomes an active part of the play on the court -- and often he'll wind up getting a return pass and taking the last shot himself -- he must get the ball in within five seconds while his target is being grabbed or otherwise constrained, as referees are unlikely to call a foul in this situation. "Since you may not get a call on a low clock, the main thing you have to do is make every move forceful," says Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen, a recognized last-shot master over the last decade who had two game-winning three-pointers earlier this season. "If you're coming off a screen, you come hard. If you're beating someone into the lane, do it hard."
Once the ball is in play, there is also the question of whether to attack a specific defender. D'Antoni used to draw up plays with that in mind, then kick himself when the opposing coach took that player out of the game. So he stopped doing it. On the other hand, Denver Nuggets coach George Karl is known for going at a player who just missed a crucial free throw at the other end, figuring he might be depressed and distracted -- the kick-'em-while-they're-down approach.
Defensively, the major last-shot considerations are these: If you're up three, should you deliberately foul to avoid a potential game-tying three-pointer? And no matter what the score is, should you stick with your defensive principles or try to scheme the play, perhaps with a matchup zone? There are no absolutes, but in general NBA teams do not foul and do not use gimmicks. "Guys in our league get shots off too quickly to deliberately foul," says an Eastern Conference coach. "You don't want to put the decision on whether or not a guy was shooting in the hands of a ref. They love to call continuation." And as far as switching up on defense, teams just aren't that good at it. If a player makes a tough last shot, so be it. But if someone is left wide open because of a lapse in an unfamiliar defensive alignment, the coach has some 'splaining to do.
The only defensive constant is that great players and likely last-shot takers receive more attention. It drives fans to distraction when their team seems to allow a known last-shot artist to get the ball. Why not simply keep it out of his hands? Because it's close to impossible to do that. Jordan's famous double-clutch jumper over Craig Ehlo to beat the Cavaliers in the decisive Game 5 of a first-round series in '89 followed a mad chase before the inbounds pass that approximated a game of tag. ("We called that the Michael-gets-the-ball-and-everyone-gets-the-f----out-of-the-way play," then Bulls coach Doug Collins said after the game.) Give a scorer any court space, and he will almost certainly get the ball; give an athlete like James a single screen when he's on the move, and he will always get the ball.
One stratagem is to "jump" a player -- that is, let him get the ball then sic an extra man on him. In that March 26 game in Cleveland, Paul says he initially feared that Cleveland guard Delonte West, who was guarding inbounds passer Jannero Pargo, was going to join James in a double team. "Once they didn't do that," says Paul, "I knew I was O.K." But if a player gets the ball with an open floor, the defensive mind-set is generally not to come with double-team pressure too early, lest someone slip a screen and get an easy layup.
By and large, though, last-shot situations aren't about defense. They're about shooters and execution and heroics and dreams of long ago. "The game-winning shot I hit against New Jersey this season [on Nov. 12] was my first in the NBA," says Paul. "But I don't count it. There were 1.4 seconds left. Too much time. When I think of a last shot, I'm thinking . . . 5-4-3 . . . shot goes up . . . 2-1 . . . it goes in! . . . Game over! Game over! . . . I keep right on runnin' into the locker room." The MVP candidate has a faraway look. "That's the perfect last shot. Make it, and keep right on runnin'."