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Make the shots that win the game

This is an excerpt from NBA Coaches Playbook eBook by National Basketball Coaches Association (NBCA).

Principles of Game-Winning Shots

You might be of the opinion that the key to a successful last-second shot is to get the ball to Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, or LeBron James and let him create a scoring opportunity. Well, most of us don't have the luxury of having such an elite player on our roster, and even if we did, what do we do when that player is injured, fouled out, or denied the ball by a great defender?

The point is, resting all your last-second scoring hopes on a supreme talent isn't much of a plan. Instead, keep these concepts in mind when devising your array of buzzer-beating plays:

  • Keep things simple. Go with a play in which players can understand what they're trying to do in the heat of competition and under the pressure of a big game. The simpler, the better.
  • Thousands of plays might look great on paper, but the ones with the fewest passes before a shot usually have a higher rate of success. The more passes, the more chances that something will go wrong.
  • When talking to your team during a time-out, remain calm and controlled; your team will feed off your confidence and not get caught up in the frenzy of the moment. Make eye contact with each of your players as you diagram your play. This lets you know whether they are focused on the play or still caught up in the pressure of the game. Draw your plays a little slower than usual. Help your players to slow down and focus. Make sure everyone knows his role before leaving the time-out.
  • Know the best lineup at the end of the game that can execute the winning play. This lineup might not be your five best players. In a last-second shot situation, you might need five good shooters on the floor one night and two terrific offensive rebounders the next night, if there's time for a tip-in off a missed shot.
  • Know who you want to take the shot and who you want to make the inbounds pass. These are the two most important components involved in successful last-second shots. The coach has to know which of his players enjoys the pressure of a big shot and won't hesitate to take it, and who has the vision, passing skills, and coolness under fire to make the right inbounds pass. I have seen more plays fail because the player passing inbounds, afraid of making a mistake, held onto the ball too long or tried to pass too quickly and threw it right into a defender's hands.
  • Know your players' strengths and weaknesses. Many players, even good players, don't really like pressure situations at the end of a game. Know which players thrive on pressure, and make sure they're in the game.

Using the Clock

Teach your players to use the clock in game-winning situations. Unless they practice a lot for these types of plays, players often rush through a play, failing to execute, thinking time will run out on them. The result is usually unsuccessful.

One method of explaining the clock to players is to divide the remaining time into smaller and smaller segments and discuss what can be accomplished with fewer and fewer ticks left on the clock. Here are some examples:

  • If you have 8 seconds left on the clock and the ball is going to be thrown inbounds from the sideline at your basket, you have time to set up a quick isolation for a drive and one more pass. Or you probably have time to make two quick passes before the last shot must be released to beat the buzzer.
  • If the ball must be brought up full court in 8 seconds, your dynamic for getting the ball across half-court must change significantly.
  • With 4 seconds left, a player might have time to take a dribble or two to get away from his defender, but if he does, there's probably no time left for an extra pass.
  • When the clock is down to 2 seconds, the situation usually demands a "catch-and-shoot" type of player; the shooter should try to come off a screen to get free for a good look at the hoop on the inbounds catch.
  • With one second or less left, the lob pass comes into play.

Once your team knows how to best use the time left on the clock, they'll know what they can and cannot do in any situation, and the clock becomes their friend and not their enemy.

Roles and Players

If you were writing up a recipe for success at game-winning shots, the ingredients might look something like this:

  • One great individual scorer, either with size inside or athleticism outside, in order to create and make a tough shot.
  • One terrific inbounds passer with great court vision, a keen sense of timing, and no fear.
  • Two deadeye three-point shooters to spread the court.
  • One great screener unafraid to put his body on a defender.

Mix these together, bake at high heat under the bright lights, and admire the result: a team that always hits the big shots when it counts.

More Excerpts From NBA Coaches Playbook eBook