A Beginner’s Guide on how to Handle the Last Few Seconds of a Basketball Game

March 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Every year, the NCAA tournament features a litany of close games and down-to-the-wire finishes. That’s what makes it so popular, so riveting and so fun to watch, even for relatively casual fans like me.

This year’s tourney has featured an inordinate amount of last-second finishes. Some teams have handled these finishes expertly (e.g. Butler in the first round, Kentucky last night), but an overwhelming amount of teams have fucked up these situations beyond belief. Last night, Florida State waited until there was about four seconds left to start driving to the hoop, resulting in a horrible shot and no chance to rebound. They lost by one point. Many teams, such as Princeton in the first round, committed the terrible sin of not even getting a final shot off in time. And then of course, the defense has been just as bad and stupid, with the obvious best example being the Pittsburgh-Butler atrocity of a finish, in which both teams traded fouls from more than 60 feet away from the other team’s basket.

I understand programs have more important things to do than practice and work on crunch-time situations, such as try to squeeze as much money out of fans and alumni as possible, so to help these players and coaches out, I’ll present a few bullet points on how to handle the last few seconds of a basketball game. It’s all pretty common sense stuff, and my only credentials are roughly 250 organized games played between 3rd and 10th grade, countless hours of pickup ball and a few YMCA leagues, but I feel like someone needs to dispense this advice, and I’ve absorbed enough basketball through playing, watching and reading about it to qualify.

Here’s the list, in order of importance.

  1. Take a shot with at least five seconds left. In the NBA, you could argue that a player should wait till literally the last second because teams can call timeout and move the ball up the court. In college, even if a team calls timeout, they still have to throw it in from their own baseline. That means if you make the shot with five seconds left, the other team still has to pull off a Christian Laettner-esque play, which is highly unlikely, or they most likely have to shoot from around half court. Also not likely. More important though, if you miss the shot with five seconds left, then guess what? You have a chance to rebound! What a novel concept! Too many of these coaches and players are concerned with having the absolute last shot or getting the glory of a Kemba Walker-esque buzzer beater instead of giving themselves the best chance to score at the end.
  2. Don’t even think about fouling unless a player has a wide-open layup. Defenders certainly shouldn’t be lax by any means, but the worst thing you can do on defense if you’re tied or up by a couple is to even put yourself in a position to commit a foul. (Cough, Pittsburgh, cough cough).
  3. Do foul though if you’re up three. This has been studied endlessly by many statistics nerds, and the result is always the same: Making a team shoot a couple free throws (where they’ll presumably try to make the first and purposely miss the second) gives you better odds to win than simply hoping a team misses its game-tying three. Yet teams rarely foul in this situation.
  4. Get your ass moving! In the FSU game yesterday, their guard looked like an elderly lady at the supermarket when he was walking the ball up the floor. Get moving, and get your defender moving laterally instead of letting him gather his energy.
  5. Know how to deal with what the defense throws at you. This sounds simple enough, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a team do the typical “isolate your best player at the top of the three point line” play only to be completely baffled when the defense traps him. The other four players then get that face that says “Shit. I might have to get the ball here.”

All these problems could easily be fixed if teams would just run through these situations for 15 minutes at the end of every practice. But as we Mizzou fans just saw, coaches often have their minds elsewhere.

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