With 2:48 left in a road game in Newark, the Portland Trail Blazers and New Jersey Nets were tied at 87.
Lookout, crunch time. Ignore, for a moment, that this was a middling team playing a poor one, or that the stands were nearly empty. This was, if you're a basketball fan, a moment. Tactics would be deployed. There was about to be a show.
Only: How were we to know that the show would fizzle thanks to one team's utter lack of timeouts?
Nate McMillan called timeout with 2:48 left. It was a noteworthy one (the TV broadcasters were in a tizzy) because what in fact happened was that the Nets had called a 20-second timeout, which eventually rolled right into Portland's full timeout, which created a lavish, and confusingly long, break in the action.
That left McMillan's team with three timeouts.
They're incredibly valuable, of course. In close games, timeouts not only let coaches deliver wisdom, rest and water, but they also allow an array of tactical advantages. They are chances to move the ball, to substitute players and -- more importantly than anything else, I'd argue -- to extend a game if you get behind.
Although I know you already know, let's peek once more at how that works. Roughly one zillion times, through NBA history, a team has scored with less than a second left. (Even a tenth of a second -- not enough time for humans to even press the button to start the darned clock -- is sometimes enough.) Roughly ten zillion times a team has managed to deliver a foul in even less time than that.
The basic procedure in crunch time, when trailing, is: The other team gets the ball. You foul immediately. (This can take less than a second.) They shoot free throws. (The clock is stopped, except for the time it may take to rebound a miss, and call timeout.) You call timeout, and move the ball to halfcourt. (The clock is still stopped.) You inbound it (the clock only starts when a player touches it, and players can catch and shoot in under a second) and run one of those quick-hitter plays you have practiced many times before. Rinse, wash, repeat.
And through all of that, and with some luck and 3-point shooting, you can outscore your opponents by four or five points or more over just the last ten seconds of a game. It happens.
But that whole thing only works with timeouts. Why? Because dribbling the ball up the court takes forever. You only get to do that, in all likelihood, once in a game's final ten seconds. But with lots of timeouts, you might cram three or four possessions in the game's final seconds. If you're trailing in a close game, an extra possession is everything. It's like having another day of life. Could any price be too steep?
Extending the game is far more valuable than imparting wisdom.
So, with three timeouts to deploy over the game's final 2:48, surely McMillan would get stingy and save some for the closing seconds, right?
Wrong. Instead, he called one a minute later, another a minute after that, and his final timeout with 20 seconds left and his team down four.
I have nothing but respect for Coach McMillan, who knows all kinds of stuff I don't about the game and his team. Quite possibly the team would have been down eight or ten had he not called those timeouts earlier. (I'm also picking on McMillan arbitrarily here -- lots of coaches do this.)
But I know this: There's a steep price to pay for having no timeouts in the waning seconds of a close game. And Portland paid it.
Devin Harris made two free throws with 13 seconds left, putting the Nets up six. The game was likely over at that point. But with perfect strategy and luck, anything's possible.
The Blazers, though, did not have the timeouts to execute a perfect strategy. Portland was already in full foul and shoot-3s mode. The Nets are a so-so free-throw shooting team, averaging 78%. So it would take a miracle of made 3s and missed free throws.
But then Andre ... Miller ... had ... to ... dribble ... all ... the ... way ... up the floor. 13 seconds was now just eight. 13 seconds might have been a three or four possession game, but not like that. And it proved to be a two possession game.
Blazer Wesley Matthews hit 3-pointers on each of those possessions, too, so they only lost by two, even though the Nets didn't miss any free throws. Makes you wonder what might have happened had the Blazers saved a few timeouts to milk the final seconds for another shot or two.