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  • The clock is ticking down in a tight game. Do you get the team together and draw up a play, or let the action unfold naturally? Whether or not to call a timeout is a split-second decision, but—especially in the playoffs—it's one of the most significant ones an NBA coach can make.
By Michael Pina
May 02, 2019

This story appears in the May 6, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

One of the biggest decisions of Terry Stotts' coaching career actually wasn't much of a decision. With 17 seconds left in Game 5 of his Trail Blazers' first-round series against the Thunder, Portland forward Al-Farouq Aminu rebounded Russell Westbrook's missed layup and handed the ball to his point guard, Damian Lillard, who, in the tied game, had already scored 47 points. Stotts had one timeout left—an opportunity to stop the game, get everyone on the same page and call a play he was confident could work—but the seventh-year coach chose to let the action run. Lillard jogged up the floor, sized up Paul George, and then drilled a walk-off, 37-foot, step-back three.

Stotts has served as an assistant for several coaches, including George Karl (who preserved his timeouts) and Rick Carlisle (who calls more than any other coach). He leans toward the former, preferring to let his team push through runs. "I have a tendency to hang on to them probably more than some other coaches," he says.

Thirty-six hours after Lillard's shot, Stotts thought back to a much less important game that took place 14 years ago, when he was coaching the Bucks and facing Jerry Sloan's Jazz. After Bucks guard Michael Redd hit a game-tying three with 6.9 seconds left, Sloan didn't call timeout. Deron Williams grabbed the inbound, raced up the floor and found Matt Harpring along the baseline for the game-winning layup. Milwaukee was stunned.

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There are some parallels here to Lillard's dagger, and so much of Stotts's choice boiled down to personnel, the score ("maybe if we were down one, I'd bring back [center] Enes [Kanter] as an offensive rebounder, but the game had been flowing, we had a lot of momentum going," he says) and not wanting to risk turning the ball over on an inbounds play that would have to be executed with no timeouts available.

Not everyone would've done what Stotts did, but Portland's head coach liked who was on the court and had players who knew exactly what to do in that exact spot. For late-game isolations when Lillard has the ball, C.J. McCollum will spot up in the strongside corner with three spacers on the opposite end. If the Thunder sent a second defender at Lillard, Portland knew how to react.

"It was situation that we were prepared for, and I couldn't think of one good reason to call a timeout," Stotts says. "Really, there wasn't a lot of decision to make."

Timeouts serve countless masters, and the reasons they are used (or suppressed) are—in an NBA that's infusing itself with more data, trying to satiate a hunger to be faster and more exciting—as important and complicated as ever. Some of the rationale for calling them is timeless. Emotion will never leave the game. Tactical shifts are deeply embedded into the sport's DNA. While the best timeout is often the one not called, they still serve an undeniable purpose as guardrails. Players need to rest. Strategy must be explained and altered. Substitution patterns should be adhered to. Miniature sideline classrooms are essential. They remain the primary way a coach can impress himself upon the action.

But the more we learn about lineup arrangements, keeping players fresh, the advantages of playing in transition versus in the half court and countless other areas that quietly influence in-game decision making, the more critical timeouts become.

In most cases, watching a coach call one is as much fun as being reminded to eat your vegetables. People love basketball for many reasons, one being the building tension as the clock ticks toward zero. Unwanted interruptions that remove fans from the moment and send them scurrying to open Twitter are a bummer.

Two years ago, in an effort to expedite game flow, the NBA's competition committee voted to reduce the number of total timeouts in each game from 18 to 14. Coaches can't enter the fourth quarter with more than four or have more than two in the final three minutes. According to Kiki VanDeWeghe, the league's executive VP of basketball operations, timeouts over the last three minutes of games are down approximately 25%, while pace is up nearly four possessions per game.

A pair of additional TV timeouts at the nine-minute mark in the second and fourth quarter used to be the norm, but now there are only two in each frame: at the first dead ball after the seven-minute mark (charged to the home team) and after the three-minute mark (charged to the team that hasn't already called one). Coaches can cross the mandatory stoppages out by calling for it earlier themselves, but in most circumstances that still leaves them with only three discretionary timeouts. There's not a lot of room to reduce any more without taking away TV timeouts, an option that isn't in the cards anytime soon. (Mandatory timeouts last 2:45 during local games and 3:15 for national games. Additional timeouts beyond those are 1:15.)

"We want players rested because clearly injury numbers go up as fatigue goes up," says VanDeWeghe. "This is a game of motion. It's a game of emotion. And so players can get very tired out there. You've gotta have those breaks. So we tried to balance those things with game flow and not spend too much time in stoppages and yet give the players enough rest to recover. I think we're always trying to tweak that balance, but it is a balancing equation. There's no question."

In 2015-16, the season before the Rockets hired Mike D'Antoni, they finished 15th in timeouts. Since his arrival they have been dead last every year. (All team timeout statistics in this article include automatic television timeouts and those called by players, and were provided by STATS LLC.)

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This season Houston was charged with a staggering 133 fewer timeouts than the league-leading Bulls. On the surface, this shouldn't be that surprising. The Rockets have shooting guard James Harden, the bearded embodiment of offensive dependability, and Chris Paul, an all-time orchestrator at the point. "What am I gonna do, say 'Oh, let me take the ball out of James's hand, then take it out, call a timeout, put it back in their hands in the exact same spot they were?'" D'Antoni says. "We just go with it."

If there's one theme that runs through D'Antoni's 15 years as an NBA coach, it's subversion. While most coaches won't hesitate to halt games when the other team rips off a quick 8-0 spurt, D'Antoni's belief system goes the other way. "There are no analytics that really proves that if you call a timeout, it stops the run of the other team," he says. "Actually, there's evidence that doesn't support that." D'Antoni is happy to use a timeout if the clock runs a bit too far past the point when Paul, Harden or center Clint Capela is supposed to reenter a game, or if he sees one of his players limping around the court. But even when Houston stumbled to an 11-14 start this season, there wasn't any deviation from his philosophy.

D'Antoni thinks back to his brief tenure as associate head coach of the 76ers. They won 10 games in 2015-16 and were charged with 666 timeouts, 41 more than any other team. But D'Antoni never challenged Philadelphia coach Brett Brown about all the voluntary stoppages. "The biggest thing, I thought," he says, "was that it ate into my dinner time."

Now 67, with the peaks and valleys of a lifetime in basketball behind him, D'Antoni makes a gray area sound more black-and-white than it actually is. Leaning on probabilistic rationale when you only have a few seconds to make a decision in a high-pressure situation is not easy for a coach, particularly with so many pros and cons to consider.

In a March 24 game against the Hornets, Raptors coach Nick Nurse spent the closing seconds squinched in a stress ball. Up two with the rock in Kawhi Leonard's gigantic paws, Nurse analyzed all the information his brain could process in a few seconds, then hoped for the best.

He decided against using a timeout, saw Leonard brick an awkward, contested jumper, then helplessly watched Jeremy Lamb bang a half-court game winner as the buzzer sounded. "There was something in me, where I wanted to take [a timeout] and draw up a special play and try to get [the lead] to two possessions and just try to end the game there," he explained later. "But then if something were to happen and I'd need to advance it, I would've really been pissed at myself. But the way it turned out, I wish I would've taken it. I was really close, like, I got up, I raced to midcourt, and I was kinda watching us play. Regret is a strong word, but it's the right word."

While cutting his teeth as a coach in England, where he spent more than a decade leading a handful of clubs that no longer exist, Nurse would watch Phil Jackson's Bulls over and over and over. He absorbed how Jackson used to let his teams play through painful runs and course-correct on the fly. "I've got a little bit of that in my blood," Nurse says. "There are times when I think I should probably call one. Then I say, 'No, no, let 'em figure it out. Let 'em go through it.' I probably do that a little more than maybe I'd like to, to be honest."

Warriors coach Steve Kerr won three championships in five seasons on Jackson's Bulls; he subscribes to his former coach's strategy. "It's good for a team to get itself out of a ditch instead of relying on a timeout and grumbling at each other," he says. "Let's communicate, get all five guys [working] together and execute a play. And if they can do that on their own, it's very empowering."

One of the biggest reasons coaches hang on to timeouts is ball advancement, the desire to keep one in the chamber in case a game is tight and someone grabs a rebound without enough time to push the ball up the court. "I would say I'm pretty adamant about trying to keep one for that situation," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer says. But Bud—and several other coaches, including Nurse and the Celtics' Brad Stevens—will always let things ride when they can.

"Even though we can advance it and save three seconds or whatever we're gonna save, now we've gotta get in a half-court set, which isn't that easy sometimes late in the game, with the physicality of it," says Nurse. "Sometimes you're calling one and putting yourself in a bind right away. So [I prefer] letting it play on, especially if you're just gonna kind of run a mid pick-and-roll with your best players anyway."

Stevens led a team that's finished with the third-fewest timeouts this season and the second fewest in 2017-18. "If I had my druthers I would always choose to run against a defense that's not set, or execute with an action you feel like is great at that moment without calling a timeout," he says. "I would always prefer that."

What's not to say that Stevens, one of the best coaches in the league at drawing up plays in the huddle, won't interrupt the flow in crunch time. Last year in Game 3 of the second round against the Sixers, Boston's Marcus Morris grabbed a rebound down one with 14 seconds left. Stevens called time a few seconds later and designed a play that got Al Horford a game-winning layup.

The reduction in total timeouts—along with other rules changes made by the NBA to facilitate flow—initially brought a new challenge to coaches who already had to process an information overload in a short period of time. Even with fewer timeouts at their disposal, a sharp coach can still manipulate rhythm better than any on-court participant.

Stevens, who is the personification of the word calm, has ironically been branded "Mad Brad" on Twitter (he allowed a smile when first informed about it) because of his penchant for angrily calling timeouts in the first minute of a quarter. (It's Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's calling card. In Game 3 of San Antonio's first-round series against the Nuggets, he called two in the first three minutes of the second quarter.) But in reality it's more about motivation, a stern message sent to a team that needs to change its disposition or focus.

"The start of the quarters, especially that third quarter, is really, really important," says Stevens. "If you see you're not quite as locked as you were at the end of the half, whatever the case may be, and you're gonna use one at seven anyways, using one at nine or 10 isn't the end of the world."

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Personnel is an undeniable factor in the timeout, and that may not be more glaring than in Philadelphia, where the Sixers called 492 timeouts this season and 493 last. (Both were third highest in the league.) Brett Brown, their sixth-year coach, makes a point to watch the last two minutes of every close game in the entire league just to see how different coaches behave. "There are many situations where you might have to burn your timeouts and be left with none," he says. "I don't like doing that, but I don't care if I die with money."

There are situations where Brown wishes he had the same flexibility as his peers, but he also coaches center Joel Embiid, a lumbering 25-year-old whose health and physical conditioning affect Philadelphia in myriad ways—especially when combined with an influential analytics department that helps decide which players play when and for how long. "There's a Joel factor involved in this," Brown says. "There's also a factor that we still are incredibly young with a rookie—sort of, at some of those stages—point guard [Ben Simmons] who used to be a college four man, and you're trying to help him navigate through it. If they let me have another timeout, I would use that, too."

Whenever the Warriors—a team that finished with the second-fewest TOs this season—call time, the procedure is the same. Kerr summons assistants Mike Brown, Bruce Fraser and Jarron Collins on the floor to draw up a play, while assistant Ron Adams consults with players on the bench. As the timeout winds down, everybody meets in the huddle and finalizes the plan. It's here where Golden State's players are allowed to offer their input, too. "They're the ones doing it and feeling it," Kerr says.

Nurse also follows a script for his timeouts. For the first 30 or 40 seconds, he inspects the margins of his iPad, where he's written down the initials of everyone in the game, then looks at his assistants and asks a series of questions. "The first thing I'm always doing is figuring who the hell should be in," Nurse says. "Do we have the right matchups? Is anybody tired? Is anybody in foul trouble? Is there somebody we need to see? That's always what I've started with, from when I was 23 to now, in my 50s."

Some timeouts can feel a little more extemporaneous. In February 2000, Jackson's Lakers were playing the Trail Blazers. The teams were tied for first in the West with 45-11 records, and Jackson, perhaps exaggerating just a bit, said he had never seen "a bigger game in my 33 years." Despite his penchant for sitting on his timeouts, he called one midway through the first quarter with his team down 8-6.

"We were just bringing the ball in and he called a timeout," Lakers guard Brian Shaw told The New York Times. "Everybody looked at him and was surprised. I thought, Uh-oh, he must have called something in the huddle and we didn't run it the right way. So I said, 'Did we do something?' And he said: 'No. I'm just messing around.' We just went over and had some water and sat down. And then he said: 'O.K. Get ready to go.'" The Lakers won 90-87.

Three months later, when the Lakers and the Blazers met again in playoffs, Jackson was back to his old tricks. In the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, he sat on his hands as Portland went on a 20-0 run. (The Lakers ended up losing by 29 but rallied to win the series.)

The postseason has a way of magnifying every shot, turnover and decision. For some coaches, like Jackson, the increased stakes don't mean they'll reexamine their TO M.O. In the regular season Kenny Atkinson of the Nets called the second-most timeouts of any coach whose team made the playoffs. In the postseason he called 28 in five games, the third-highest rate. "It's the same," Atkinson says. "Same feel. And, you know, sometimes I'm good at it, sometimes I'm not."

For other coaches, though, the heightened postseason environment impacts when and why they'll choose to burn one. There's more pressure to communicate a message to the team. "A timeout in game 10 [of the regular season] is not the same as a timeout in the playoffs," says ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy."

Says Brown, who matched Atkinson with 28 timeouts in their five-game first-round series, "You're more mindful in the playoffs of fixing something immediately."

Not everyone sticks to his guns. During the regular season, Kerr prefers to be as judicious as possible with his timeouts, but if something isn't working out in a playoff game, he won't hesitate to burn one. In the regular season the Warriors averaged 4.7 timeouts per game. In the playoffs that number is 5.3.

In Game 1 of the first round against Clippers, he took one seven minutes into the game for no other reason than to replace center DeMarcus Cousins—who was getting repeatedly targeted by guard Lou Williams in the pick-and-roll—with Andre Iguodala. In Game 2 he called time midway through the third quarter after his team allowed a layup in transition. The Warriors were up 27 (and would eventually lose the game), but watching Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson opt not to run back on defense overruled the scoreboard. "We're much more likely in the regular season to let play go on. But in the playoffs," he says, "every possession takes on more significance."

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