"The notoriety of a coach is directly proportional to his team's execution under pressure."
Those were Hubie Brown's words, and there is no more pressure-packed situation for a team (or coach) than the play drawn up during the last seconds of a game. What I'd like to do, is go through a few situations that take place late in games, giving you an idea of what players and coaches are thinking during those timeouts at the end of games.
First of all, any last-second play falls into a category we call "special situations." These situations also include things like inbound plays under the basket, on the sideline and in the full-court against pressing defenses. It also entails areas like playing with a lead, playing from behind, and playing against trapping defenses. "Special situations" are to basketball what special teams are to football.
But, when it comes to last-second plays, every coaching staff has thought out its best-case scenarios long before those final seconds are ticking away in a game. There is hardly enough time during those timeouts to draw up a play. No, the plays run to win games are created long before the start of a season, when a coach's thought process is much clearer and the pressure far less intense than during a game.
These plays are also practiced quite often during the preseason, as well as during the season in game-like conditions that build confidence in both players and the coach. That confidence comes from knowing what to do when the pressure is at its highest.
So, with all this in mind, let's look at a couple of last-second plays from different spots on the court. We will start with a play within the half-court offense, then look at one from a side out-of-bounds play with 1.7 seconds to play, and finally go through a full-court play with at least two seconds remaining in the game. We'll also throw in a last-second 3-point play for good measure.
If a team needs a basket in the closing moments of a game, they will keep it as simple as possible with as few passes as possible. This is no time to get tricky with a play that requires too many passes and too many people touching the ball. The wrong guy handling the ball can be disastrous in the final seconds of a close game.
The key to this play is a point guard who can penetrate, which allows the other four players to stay on the baseline. The best shooters are on the wings and the post players start on the blocks in what's commonly called a "1-4 Flat" alignment. (Diagram 1)
If the point guard can get all the way to the rim, he takes the shot. If he draws help from the post defender (Diagram 2), he dishes off to the post man. Or, when help comes from the defender on the wing man, he kicks it out for an open 3-pointer (Diagram 3). This play is designed to get a good look at the basket with one pass, at the most.
Some teams will set a high ball screen to try and free the ball handler from his own man. However, the ball screen becomes an easy place to trap the ball and, possibly, cause a turnover or break the rhythm of the play. (Diagram 4)
In any event, when a team is behind and has the last shot, it will always send four players to the offensive boards and leave someone spotting up for a 3-pointer off the pass out from the rebound ... if there is time. (Diagram 5)
It's assumed most defenders will watch the last shot go up and lose sight of the player they are defending. Here, the power forward (4) rebounds the ball and passes back out to the shooting guard (2). (Diagram 6)
This is a play I stole from John Calipari when I was a first-year head coach at Manhattan College in 1992-93. We put the play into our offense during January, and I told the team that we would only use it at the end of a game in which we desperately needed a basket. We practiced it and practiced it every day for the rest of the season.
Finally, in our conference championship game, with the score tied and 30 seconds to go, we pulled "The Winner" out of moth balls.
What makes this play so effective at the end of a game is that is designed with missing a shot in mind. If 50 percent of shots are missed, why not design a play that allows you to score or get the offensive rebound. This play also has a number of options that require only one pass and a shot.
It all starts with the point guard (1) dribbling to the wing opposite the power forward (4), our best inside scorer. As the center (5) screens for the point guard, the shooting guard (2) and small forward (3) screen for the power forward at the rim, as we look for a layup. (Diagram 7)
As soon as the small forward (3) sets the first back screen for the power forward (4), he cuts to the elbow area and he is the second option. (Diagram 8)
At this point, the point guard should have either 4 or 3 open. If either of them catches it, he looks to shoot because the shooting guard (2) is setting a back screen on the center's man. (Diagram 9)
"Basketball physics" dictates that 70 percent of shots taken from one side of the court bounce to the other side, so the center is in great position for the rebound, especially if his man is screened.
By the way, when we ran the play back in the MAAC championship game, our center got a piece of the rebound and tipped it to the shooting guard, who was fouled at the buzzer ... and Manhattan College was on its way to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 35 years.
This is an old Dean Smith play from the side out of bounds, so we'll call it "Carolina."
In this situation, a team is trailing by two or three points with under two seconds to play and the ball is out of bounds at halfcourt. Again, a team wants to get a good shot and doesn't have time for more than one pass. They set up in a "Box" set, with the small forward (3) playing the role of decoy, and the shooting guard taking the shot. (Diagram 10)
The play starts with the shooting guard (2) screening for the small forward (3), who looks for the ball. This "misdirection" gets everyone in the arena thinking the pass is going to 3. But then the center (5) screens for the shooting guard (2), who breaks to the corner for the pass from the point (1). (Diagram 11)
There is time for a catch and a shot, and possibly, an offensive rebound tip in. The shooting guard (2) can also shot-fake the defender to draw a shooting foul. A good coach can take a play like this and add a few more options to this "set," so the play is not predictable from season to season.
The 'Home Run'
This is basketball's equivalent of the "Hail Mary" play in football. And like a long pass at the end of a football game, the percentages are against it working more than once in 20 attempts. But, a coach has to have it in his playbook. After all, watch SportsCenter enough during the college basketball season and you will see the play work.
You may remember Valparaiso defeating Mississippi in the NCAA Tournament when Bryce Drew hit a 3-point shot at the buzzer. Well, it was a variation of the "Home Run."
A team needs about two seconds, ideally, but it can work with less time on the clock. It also requires a player who can throw the ball 94 feet, accurately. It is important to find this out in practice who can make this pass, because it is not as easy as it looks.
The play is triggered by a team's tallest player, or best leaper on the baseline. The team's three best shooters are at mid-court. (Diagram 12)
When the ball is put in play, the center breaks out to the foul line and the power forward, in the case, (4) throws the pass to him. The center (5) must fight for position. His job is to catch and shoot the ball (see: Christian Laettner vs. Kentucky), or catch and pass it to the shooters coming up from mid-court. If he can't catch it, he tries to bat it to one of the three players spotting up. (Diagram 12)
All a team can hope for is a good look at the basket. Then, anything can happen.
Remember, all a coach can do is prepare his team for last-second situations. These plays will not always work and, in fact, a lot of luck is involved.
But the confidence that comes from being prepared for these situations will eliminate the doubt the players might have if they weren't prepared. The players enjoy this part of the game when they feel prepared.
A good last-second offense can steal two or three wins a season and, in my case, even a conference championship.
Fran Fraschilla spent 23 years on the sidelines as a college basketball coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico before joining ESPN and ESPN.com as an analyst last season.