The Phoenix Suns had 4.3 seconds to work some magic. They trailed
the Seattle SuperSonics 107-104 in Game 4 of their first-round
playoff series last May, and their point guard, Jason Kidd,
stood near midcourt, ready to make the inbounds pass. Kidd
slapped the ball, and suddenly Phoenix guard Rex Chapman, who
had been standing near the top of the key, turned and sprinted
away from him, toward the far sideline. Kidd hesitated for a
split second, then lofted a pass across the court. Chapman
caught it over his right shoulder like a wide receiver, turned
and, in one motion, shot from several feet beyond the
three-point line. The ball made a perfect arc from his hand into
the net. Tie game.
The Suns lost in overtime, but that hardly detracted from the
Kidd-Chapman collaboration, one of the most remarkable clutch
baskets of last season in degree of difficulty. It was the kind
of desperation play that had the look and feel of improvisation,
but it was planned that way. "Believe it or not, that was a
designed play," Phoenix coach Danny Ainge says. "When it comes
to those last-second situations, you practice every possible
At some point every one of those scenarios will come to pass.
The NBA does not keep track of how many games go down to the
final shot, but 176 games (14.8%) were decided by three points
or less last regular season. It's safe to assume that in most of
those, the outcome was still in doubt on the last possession.
During last season's playoffs, 12 of the 72 games (16.7%) either
went to overtime or were decided on the last sequence, including
three in the Finals--all won by the Chicago Bulls.
In most close games, even those without last-second dramatics,
there are one or two late-game sequences during which the game
hangs in the balance. "In almost every game you will be faced
with a defining moment, when you either have to make the stop or
get a bucket," says Orlando Magic coach Chuck Daly. "It may not
be on the last play of the game; it may come in the final minute
or two. But there are going to be an awful lot of nights when
it's going to be the difference between winning and losing."
November 10, 1997
That's why there is no more valuable commodity in the sport than
a great clutch player. In last season's championship series
Michael Jordan proved again that he has no equal among active
players in that category, beating the Utah Jazz with a jump shot
at the buzzer in Game 1 and setting up Steve Kerr for a basket
with five seconds left in Game 6, which sealed the victory and
the title for the Bulls. Jerry West earned the nickname Mr.
Clutch with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1960s and '70s, and
current star guards Anfernee Hardaway of the Magic and Reggie
Miller of the Indiana Pacers have built reputations as shooters
who excel at the end of close games, but Jordan's only true
rival as the alltime master of the endgame is Larry Bird.
"They're the two best I've ever seen," says Ainge, who was a
Celtics teammate of Bird's for eight seasons. "If you have one
of those two, everything you draw up late in the game has a
great chance of working."
Every team has a package of plays designed for end-of-the-game
situations. "You have plays for any amount of time remaining,
from less than a second all the way up to 24," says Golden State
Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo. So put yourself in the coach's
place as you consider the anatomy of the last shot. Also,
remember that the way a play works in practice isn't necessarily
the way it will work in a game, as Chapman's three-pointer
against Seattle proved. "That," says Ainge, "was the first time
Rex ever actually made the shot."
:05 THE TIMEOUT
Your team is down by one when one of your players grabs the
rebound of a missed shot. If you are like most coaches, you call
a timeout to diagram the final play and make substitutions,
though a few guys, such as Ainge and Carlesimo, often choose not
to stop the game. "A lot depends on your personnel," Ainge says.
"My two best players [Kidd and Kevin Johnson] are both point
guards who are great in the open court. I feel comfortable
letting them push the ball up the floor and create something
before the defense has a chance to set up." But leaving the game
in the hands of his players opens up the coach to criticism. "If
you don't call a timeout, people are going to think you're not
doing any coaching," says Daly. "Don't think that doesn't enter
into some coaches' minds."
One advantage to not calling timeout is that players have no
chance to lobby for the ball. "You've got all five guys who are
in the game, a couple of players on the bench, the beer vendor
and the lady in the third row all telling you they can get
open," says Los Angeles Clippers coach Bill Fitch. But usually
the entire team, plus everyone else in the arena, knows the play
is going to be designed for the team's star. In Chicago it will
be Jordan, in Orlando it will be Hardaway, in New York it will
be Patrick Ewing. This isn't just because the coach can sleep
better at night knowing that his best player decided the outcome.
"There's a psychological factor," Daly says. "Your go-to guy
wants to know you have complete confidence in him to make that
shot or make the right decision with the ball. If you go to
someone else, you might have a problem on your hands. I think
you saw that with the Bulls a few years ago  when Jordan
was retired, and they called the play for Toni Kukoc at the end
of the playoff game against the Knicks. Scottie Pippen got so
upset he wouldn't go back in the game."
:04 THE THROW-IN
You send the ball boy back to the locker room for your antacid
pills as you watch your team get the ball inbounds a split
second before the referee calls a five-second violation. The
throw-in is the most overlooked aspect of last-second plays and
the point at which they most often break down. "You can have
something drawn up that's pure genius, and it doesn't make any
difference because you can't get the ball in," says Daly. "Even
when you get it in, if the defense has forced you to get the
ball to someone you don't want to have it or in a place you
don't want to have it, the play can break down before it starts."
That's why a good inbounds passer is essential. Forwards Danny
Manning of Phoenix, Derrick McKey of Indiana and Robert Horry of
the Lakers are among the best in the league, and Fitch has had
two of the better ones of the past, Cedric Maxwell in Boston and
Rodney McCray in Houston. The job requires many of the same
qualities needed by a quarterback facing a pass rush: The passer
generally must be tall enough to find a passing lane when he's
getting "tigered" (pressured by a defender only inches away),
and he must be decisive enough to act quickly yet calm enough to
remember that the five seconds he has are longer than they might
Sometimes he also has to make a particularly difficult pass.
Grant Hill made perhaps the best inbounds pass of last season in
a Feb. 28 game against Boston. Three tenths of a second remained
and the Detroit Pistons trailed 84-82. Hill inbounded the ball
at midcourt and tossed a perfect alley-oop to Lindsey Hunter for
the layup that tied the game, and Detroit went on to win in
overtime, 106-100. But throw-ins don't have to be spectacular to
be effective. Fitch remembers several last-second baskets by
Bird that were made possible by Maxwell, who waited until just
the right moment to deliver the inbounds pass. "Larry would
catch and shoot, the ball would go in the hole, we'd win, and
everybody would hug Larry," Fitch says. "Nobody ever hugs the
guy who throws it in."
:03 THE PLAY
You wonder if the opposing coach will recognize your play as the
one he ran against you last year. Coaches steal shamelessly.
Need a play designed to get an open three-pointer in a hurry?
Pull out the tapes of Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown's
teams when he was with Indiana. "Larry has more three-point
stuff than anybody in the league," says Daly. If you need an
inbounds play, Fitch is your man. He has MOBs, BOBs and SOBs
(which, he's quick to point out, doesn't refer to what the
players think of the coach)--Midcourt Out-of-Bounds plays,
Baseline Out-of-Bounds and Sideline Out-of-Bounds. "He has
something for every situation," says Miami Heat trainer Ron
Culp, who worked under Fitch when they were with the Cleveland
Cavaliers. "I mean, he has one for 'Three seconds to go, a
typhoon is about to hit, and we're shooting at the north goal.'"
Fitch admits to appropriating some of his colleagues' ideas over
the years. When the Houston Rockets' Ralph Sampson hit a
turnaround jumper at the buzzer to oust the Lakers from the 1986
playoffs, his basket came on a play that Fitch, the Houston
coach at the time, had seen the Denver Nuggets use against his
team in the previous series.
Once the ball is inbounded, the rest of the play is usually
simple. With the ball in the hands of the player most capable of
creating his own shot, a spot-up shooter takes position along
the three-point arc, and the players on the weak side go to the
basket, looking for a pass or a rebound. "One of the last things
you tell your guys is to crash the boards," Daly says. "You also
want your shooter to make sure he gets something up with a
couple of seconds remaining, to give you a chance to get that
follow shot. Very often you don't score on the initial shot, but
you get it on the offensive rebound."
:02 THE DEFENSE
Your players get the ball, and you watch them execute the play
exactly as you have diagrammed it. Well, close to how you drew
it up. O.K., not quite the way you showed them. "Very seldom is
the play run to perfection," says Carlesimo. "Sometimes that's
because the defense forces you out of it, but sometimes it's
just because in the heat of the moment, one of your guys goes
left when he's supposed to go right."
NBA players are so talented, though, that the play still has a
good chance. In fact, several (including the New Jersey Nets'
Sam Cassel and the Lakers' Nick Van Exel) excel in the clutch
because they can create something positive out of offensive
chaos. "Put it this way," says Carlesimo. "I'm more nervous when
I have to make a stop on the last sequence than when I have to
get a score."
There are several players who aren't All-Stars but have earned
reputations for being reliable in the clutch. The best example
may be Houston's Mario Elie, who at the end of a game often sets
up on the wing on the side away from the ball, waiting for the
defense to double-team one of the Rockets' stars, Hakeem
Olajuwon, Charles Barkley or Clyde Drexler. When the ball gets
to him, he doesn't hesitate. "I want the shot," he says.
"Sometimes it's not strategy, not X's and O's, that makes the
difference. It's whether a player really wants to take the shot.
The only way you'll succeed is if you're not afraid of what will
happen if you fail."
:01 THE SHOT
The moment of truth. Your player goes up for the shot and, if
you are like most coaches and players, there is a sense of
relief as the ball is released. The game is literally out of
your hands now. "You've worked in practice, talked it over in
the huddle, run the play and gotten open for the shot," says
Elie. "Once you let it go, all you can do is hope."
A DROP IN THE BUCKET
There have been dozens of memorable clutch shots in NBA history,
but buzzer beaters are a category unto themselves. Here are SI's
10 greatest shots of the last three decades that either won or
tied a game as the clock ticked toward zero, listed in order of
60-foot heave from backcourt in Game 3 of 1970 Finals vs. Knicks
Sent game into overtime, but New York won 111-108
25-foot jumper in Game 5 of 1976 Finals vs. Celtics
Forced third OT in one of the greatest games ever, but Boston won 128-126
Jumper from top of key in Game 5 of 1989 first round vs. Cavaliers
Eliminated Cleveland 101-100; first in a series of frustrating
losses that Cavs would suffer at Jordan's hands
Three-pointer in Game 6 of 1997 Western finals vs. Rockets
Won the game, the series and put long-suffering Utah in Finals
for first time in franchise history
Skyhook in Game 6 of 1974 Finals vs. Celtics
Won the game in double OT, forcing a Game 7, which was won by
Pull-up jumper in Game 1 of 1997 Finals vs. Jazz
Beat Utah 84-82 and set stage for Game 6, when Jordan would
pass to Steve Kerr for a late game-winner
Turnaround jumper in Game 5 of 1986 Western finals vs. Lakers
Completed series victory for underdog Houston and deprived L.A.
of a fifth straight Finals appearance
NICK VAN EXEL
Fadeaway three-pointer in 1995 regular-season game vs. Celtics
Beat Boston 120-118 in L.A.'s final appearance at its least
favorite arena, Boston Garden
14-foot jump shot vs. Hawks in 1995 regular-season game
Beat Atlanta 99-98 in Jordan's fourth game after coming out of
retirement, serving notice he was back
Alley-oop layup in 1997 regular-season game vs. Celtics
Tied game off Grant Hill pass with .3 of a second left; Pistons
won in OT
Next Best Things
Most teams run a play for their star player in last-second
situations, but defenses often force the go-to guy to go to
someone else. Here are some of the role players (listed in order
of ability and accomplishment) known for being willing and able
to make the clutch shot.
MARIO ELIE, Rockets--Earned his reputation with his Kiss of
Death shot in the 1995 Western semifinals. He hit the jumper to
seal a Houston win and eliminate Phoenix, then turned and blew a
kiss at the Suns' bench.
SAM CASSELL, Nets--Shocked everyone with fearless play as a
Houston rookie in '94 Finals when he scored seven points in the
last 32.9 seconds, including a three-pointer to clinch the win
against the Knicks in Game 3. He's known for his ability to get
into the lane and create a shot for himself or a teammate.
RON HARPER, Bulls--Doesn't take the last shot of the game, not
with Michael Jordan around, but he does make crucial
fourth-quarter shots that either bury an opponent or keep
Chicago in position to win. "He hits the shots that make the
game-winners possible," says Elie.
JOHN STARKS, Knicks--Beat the Suns with a jumper at the buzzer
last season, but there are those who feel he is too willing to
take the big shot. In the '94 Finals, with New York one win away
from a championship and trailing Houston by two in Game 6,
Starks took a three-pointer instead of getting the ball inside
to Patrick Ewing. Hakeem Olajuwon deflected the shot, and the
Knicks eventually lost the series.
JAMES ROBINSON, Clippers--Was surprisingly effective in the
clutch during his three years as a Trail Blazers reserve,
including hitting game-winning three-pointers against the Lakers
and the Toronto Raptors in the 1995-96 season. "He wasn't the
guy you would run the play for, but he had a knack for winding
up with the ball in key situations," says P.J. Carlesimo, who
coached Robinson in Portland. "Some guys run from the ball in
those situations. James would run to it." --P.T.