THE CLEVELANDCAVALIERS are down 98--97 to the New Orleans Hornets on this March night, with12.8 seconds to go. When the game's on the line, most coaches try to draw up alittle magic on the grease board, but for Mike Brown there isn't much need forcreativity. "O.K., you know what we're going to do," the Cavs' coachsays as he sends his five back onto the court at Quicken Loans Arena after atimeout. 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 thehash mark near midcourt. After Jones slaps the leather with his left palm,center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, stationed at the free throw line, moves toward thebasket and screens for forward LeBron James, who is flashing up from the rightblock. Swingman Wally Szczerbiak and forward Joe Smith head for the corners, tospread the floor and to establish themselves as options for perimeter shots.James brushes his defender off Ilgauskas and receives Smith's pass in themiddle 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. SaysBrown, "You start drawing up back screens and pick-and-rolls, and you'rejust putting the defense in position to mess up the play."
This is an article from the April 21, 2008 issue
James steals aglance at the clock, which shows that 10 seconds remain. Then he easily—way tooeasily, the Hornets will concede later—dribbles around Peja Stojakovic anddouble-teamer David West, gets into the lane and, before New Orleans centerTyson Chandler can come over to help, sinks a lefthanded layup that givesCleveland a 99--98 lead with 7.7 seconds left.
The NBA postseasonbegins its long march on Saturday, and over the next two months there's a goodchance that several games or even series will come down to last shots that arethe product of imagination, timing and skill. James's bucket comes from aclassic rendition of the last-shot play—the to-be-or-not-to-be version, as itwere—in which a protagonist seizes center stage and gives the audience, and thedefense, basketball's version of the soliloquy. Yes, the hero has some help: acoach who chooses a supporting cast; a screener who sets him free; and, inwhat's often an overlooked role, a reliable teammate to inbound the ball. Butthis last-shot scene boils down to a solitary man battling both the clock and abevy of defenders, trying mightily to lift his team to victory and establishhimself as one of those able, as Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson puts it,"to step into the moment."
At 23 James hasalready shown himself capable of such steps: In Game 5 of last year's EasternConference finals, his layup with 2.2 seconds left in double overtime beat theDetroit Pistons 109--107. Before that series King James would typically acceptthe invariable double or triple team at crunch time and pass the ball to awide-open Cav, who would more often than not miss the shot (as forward DonyellMarshall did in Game 1 against the Pistons). Pundits began to view James'sunwillingness to take the last shot as a character defect, criticism that wasnot only patently unfair but also downright nonsensical. James did have tolearn, as Brown says, that "sometimes the wrong basketball play is theright play because he's LeBron James. Sometimes he has to keep [the ball]himself."
But the Hamletapproach is not the preferred one for the Hornets, who during a timeout in thisgame against Cleveland plot for the last last shot. "I have the privilegeof options," says coach Byron Scott. "It depends on who's hot thatgame." He decides to let point guard Chris Paul work one-on-one off a highscreen 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 momentslikes to put the pressure on himself defensively, too. Paul uses the Westscreen, which momentarily stops James, and gets into the lane. James recoversand 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 buriesthe 17-footer, and the Hornets win 100--99.
THERE ARE lastshots and Last Shots. The true Last Shot is not one of those heavenly heavesthat resonate through the years, such as Jerry West's 60-foot prayer thatforced overtime in Game 3 of the 1970 Finals (in which, alas, his Lakers lostto the New York Knicks) or Robert Horry's three-point dagger off a tipped-backrebound that enabled Los Angeles to avoid elimination in Game 6 of the 2002Western Conference finals. (L.A. would beat the Sacramento Kings in seven.)Those buzzer-beaters were more art than science.
No, real LastShots, 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 havethe potential to win or tie a game. Four NBA championships in the last twodecades 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 liftedDetroit past the Portland Trail Blazers in '90; John Paxson's three-pointerwith 3.9 seconds left in Game 6 of the '93 Finals beat the Phoenix Suns andgave the Chicago Bulls their first three-peat; Steve Kerr's foul line jumperwith 5.0 seconds left in Game 6 of the '97 Finals handed the Bulls their fifthtitle, over the Utah Jazz; and Michael Jordan's famed "push-off" jumperwith 5.2 seconds left in Game 6 in '98 capped Chicago's second three-peat,again against the Jazz.
Teams generallyhave four to six last-shot sets, "a smorgasbord you tweak from time totime," says Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. As formidable a last-shot master asguard Kobe Bryant is, the Lakers have several plays, Jackson's favorite beingsomething he calls What the F---. It harks back to his days as a Knicks forwardin the 1970s, when coach Red Holzman couldn't remember the name of an effectiveplay and took a linguistic shortcut. "It's got a certain elegance toit," says Jackson. "Plus it doesn't take much time to call."
Depending on howmany 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 ballto a catch-and-shoot specialist or a player who can get a good look by making asingle attacking move. With six to 13 seconds, have two players run apick-and-roll, with the option of involving others. With more than 13 a coach'soptions expand, but the most important factor is the score: In a tie game, runthe clock all the way down; trailing, let fire with five seconds left so youhave the opportunity to follow a miss.
Whether to call atimeout to diagram a last shot is fodder for announcers more than anythingelse. 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-mellup the court. With 10 or more seconds, however, a coach is more liable to justlet 'em play, particularly if the right player has the ball. So if you see acoach leap from the bench to get a timeout with substantial clock left, you canbet he has a specific player in mind to take the last shot—and it's not the guyhandling the rock.
In selecting ashooter, free throw proficiency is a factor too. Bound as Shaquille O'Neal isfor the Hall of Fame, the lifetime 52.4% foul shooter has never been a viablelast-shot option because teams will play Hack-a-Shaq. San Antonio power forwardTim Duncan is only a 68.4% shooter from the line, so Gregg Popovich, coach ofthe defending champions and a master last-shot technician, prefers to give theball 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 whilegoing full steam, approximating a running back hitting the hole.
Indeed, in manyways the inbounder plays the most significant role. (Two seasons ago Jacksonwas so concerned about his inbounds passer that he considered trading forforward Toni Kukoc, a former Bull whose career was winding down with theMilwaukee Bucks, just for last-shot throw-ins.) Before an inbounder becomes anactive part of the play on the court—and often he'll wind up getting a returnpass and taking the last shot himself—he must get the ball in within fiveseconds while his target is being grabbed or otherwise constrained, as refereesare unlikely to call a foul in this situation. "Since you may not get acall on a low clock, the main thing you have to do is make every moveforceful," says Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen, a recognized last-shotmaster over the last decade who had two game-winning three-pointers earlierthis season. "If you're coming off a screen, you come hard. If you'rebeating someone into the lane, do it hard."
Once the ball is inplay, 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 theopposing coach took that player out of the game. So he stopped doing it. On theother hand, Denver Nuggets coach George Karl is known for going at a player whojust missed a crucial free throw at the other end, figuring he might bedepressed and distracted—the kick-'em-while-they're-down approach.
DEFENSIVELY, THEmajor last-shot considerations are these: If you're up three, should youdeliberately foul to avoid a potential game-tying three-pointer? And no matterwhat the score is, should you stick with your defensive principles or try toscheme the play, perhaps with a matchup zone? There are no absolutes, but ingeneral NBA teams do not foul and do not use gimmicks. "Guys in our leagueget shots off too quickly to deliberately foul," says an Eastern Conferencecoach. "You don't want to put the decision on whether or not a guy wasshooting in the hands of a ref. They love to call continuation." And as faras switching up on defense, teams just aren't that good at it. If a playermakes a tough last shot, so be it. But if someone is left wide open because ofa lapse in an unfamiliar defensive alignment, the coach has some 'splaining todo.
The only defensiveconstant is that great players and likely last-shot takers receive moreattention. It drives fans to distraction when their team seems to allow a knownlast-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-clutchjumper over Craig Ehlo to beat the Cavaliers in the decisive Game 5 of afirst-round series in '89 followed a mad chase before the inbounds pass thatapproximated a game of tag. ("We called that theMichael-gets-the-ball-and-everyone-gets-the-f----out-of-the-way play," thenBulls 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 singlescreen 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 onhim. In that March 26 game in Cleveland, Paul says he initially feared thatCleveland 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 anopen floor, the defensive mind-set is generally not to come with double-teampressure 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 andexecution and heroics and dreams of long ago. "The game-winning shot I hitagainst New Jersey this season [on Nov. 12] was my first in the NBA," saysPaul. "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 thelocker room." The MVP candidate has a faraway look. "That's the perfectlast shot. Make it, and keep right on runnin'."
The Celtics and Lakers would make a dream Finals (evenif not everyone will admit it)
RIGHT NOW, in a darkened video room at NBA Entertainmentin Secaucus, N.J., and at ABC's offices in midtown Manhattan, interns whoweren't even born when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson first squared off in theNBA Finals are probably collecting clips for a trip down memory lane. Ah,there's the footage of Celtics forward Kevin McHale clotheslining the Lakers'Kurt Rambis on a fast break, both of them springing up to go at each other.That happened in 1984. There's a montage of the tight-lipped Lakers after theywere beaten 148--114 in the famed Game 1 Memorial Day Massacre at BostonGarden, which motivated L.A. to come back to win the series in six. That was in'85. There's a sideline shot of Magic seesaw dribbling across the lane andlaunching what he later christened "the junior, junior, junior skyhook"to nip the Celtics in a dramatic, Finals-turning Game 4. That was in '87.
There's a long way to go, of course, but the idea of aCeltics-Lakers title showdown, which hasn't happened since the ReaganAdministration, is the most tantalizing postseason prospect to come along inyears for the league, its network partners and fans starved for a rivalry thatevokes the NBA's glory days. It's a stretch to compare the contemporaryversions of these storied franchises to those of the past, but stretching iswhat hype is all about, right? So the media need to start thinking of ways toget L.A. coach Phil Jackson to make a snide comment about the strategic chopsof his Boston counterpart, Doc Rivers. Or seeing if 22-year-old Celtics pointguard Rajon Rondo will hint that 33-year-old Derek Fisher, who plays the sameposition for the Lakers, is too old.
And for heaven's sake, someone should strap a microphoneon Boston guard Ray Allen. He's already feuded with L.A. star Kobe Bryant("Don't even put me and that dude in the same breath," Bryant saidafter exchanging elbows and taunts with Allen in 2004) and was the recipient ofa nasty flagrant foul by forward Lamar Odom during the Celtics' 110--91 victoryat Staples Center on Dec. 30. (Boston won both meetings this season.) Itdoesn't take much, after all, to rekindle past animosities. "Boston-L.A.would be riveting," says Magic senior vice president Pat Williams,"because old rivalries never go away. They smolder under the surface and,with the slightest ignition, explode."
It's difficult, of course, to get anyone in the leagueoffice to admit that a Celtics-Lakers Finals is more attractive than, say,Magic-Jazz. (You can feel the buzz from Epcot all the way to Temple Square!)Earlier this decade, during the height of the Shaq-Kobe era in L.A.,commissioner David Stern was asked what his ideal Finals matchup would be."The Lakers versus the Lakers," he said. Stern took a lot of heat forthat comment—conspiracists have long insisted that the league smiles favorablyupon the Purple and Gold—and now tiptoes around the subject like a balletdancer. When asked last month if revivals in Boston and L.A. had him juiced,the most Stern would say is, "Obviously, the Lakers and the Celtics have aspecial cachet because they're associated with the Finals." Asked last weekto comment specifically about a potential Boston-L.A. denouement in June, Sterndeclined.
Network bosses, too, refrain from uttering their truefeelings; nobody wants a barrage of favoritism charges from, oh, Detroit andNew Orleans. But the league's jump in ratings (up 14% on TNT, 12% on ESPN and9% on ABC) has spoken for them. While there are several reasons for the surge,the biggest one is the rise of the Celtics and the Lakers. "These arestoried franchises and strong brands," says David Levy, president of TurnerSports, "and when strong brands come back, so do fans across thenation."
Indeed, one high-level ABC employee says, "Of coursewe want Lakers-Celtics. There's nothing else. There's no second-best scenario.That's it. We'd kill for it."
That's because a Boston-L.A. championship series wouldcreate new legends, with Kevin Garnett battling Pau Gasol and Bryant tradingbaskets with Paul Pierce. "I remember Bird calling out his teammates, Magicdoing everything that Magic does," says Nets forward Richard Jefferson."Nine or 10 Hall of Famers were on the floor in those series in the '80s.That was as good as it gets." Says Heat coach Pat Riley, who led L.A. tofour titles in that decade, "There was never anything like Celtics-Lakers,because it was always in the Finals. It was for all of it." One of thoseLakers stalwarts agrees. "Boston-L.A. would be a very, very interestingseries," says coach Byron Scott, whose Hornets were battling for the West'sNo. 1 seed. "I just hope it doesn't happen."
Consider that a minority opinion.
Finest at The Finish
Rating the playoff teams by how dangerous they are in aclose game's final seconds
Last-shot master Kobe Bryant now can also dish to teammates he trusts.
Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are so clutch that Kevin Garnett doesn't have tobe.
LeBron. LeBron. LeBron. Somebody else maybe. LeBron. LeBron.
Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker have long last-shot résumés.
They lack big-game experience, but still have lots of late-game options.
Chauncey Billups—Mr. Big Shot—hasn't hit a really big one in a while.
With Steve Nash a frequent decoy, Leandro Barbosa tends to get last licks.
Gilbert Arenas loves the spotlight, but is he still their buzzer-beater?
Mehmet Okur has been the team's go-to guy, and he's not that reliable.
Two options in Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson—and two egos.
Its top fourth-quarter scorer, Hedo Turkoglu, is untested in the playoffs.
Many potential finishers, but '06 closeout failures continue to haunt.
First they need to decide which point guard to use as a triggerman.
Still waiting for Tracy McGrady to come through in the clutch.
Point guard Andre Miller can make a play, but who will finish it?
A miracle they're in. Don't ask for more, not even from Joe Johnson.
*As of Monday, Denver and Atlanta were the No. 8seeds.
NOW ON SI.COM
SPORTS IN REAL TIME. ALL THE TIME. ALL FREE.
Get Marty Burns's breakdowns of each first-round series, plus Ian Thomsen'sFive-Minute Guide and staff predictions.