In Cleveland, they called "Butter." The Pistons yell "Red." And could the Celtics go with anything other than "Green"? Those simple code words, and ones like them, are the key to cracking one of the daunting realities of playoff basketball: familiarity.
You see it time and again, because they've seen it time and again. A team—the Spurs, say—tries to get a shot early in the clock for, say, Tim Duncan. The well-schooled D is ready for that one, though, so it's on to Plan B: maybe a jumper for Manu. That's no surprise either, and he too is blanketed. Meanwhile, the shot clock ticks away. What to do?
According to 82games.com, one of five first-action possessions (any possession that doesn't begin with an offensive rebound) in the recent regular season came down to the final six seconds of the shot clock. In the playoffs, it's been about one in four. Makes sense: This time of year, every film session, shootaround, practice and powwow focuses on one foe. Teams know every play on the other side's grease board, every move in its go-to guy's arsenal. Fast breaks stall. Half-court sets sputter. "You don't get your first or second option very often," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
That leaves a scramble to beat the shot clock. The best teams know how to manage the chaos: According to 82games.com, five of the final eight crews—the Jazz (1), Lakers (2), Magic (6), Pistons (7) and Celtics (12)—were among the dozen best at scoring or getting to the line in the last six ticks.
Each team works the countdown differently. The Lakers' triangle and Celtics' five-man continuity, for instance, are designed to flow seamlessly into third and fourth options. More often, though, a process is set in motion that looks simplistic in approach and frantic in pace but is actually complex, rehearsed and organized. First, someone—a bench player even—notices the time (anywhere from eight to five seconds on the shot clock) and shouts the keyword. The objective, of course, is the same: Exploit a mismatch or create a double-team to free someone—fast. One scout says 90% of the time, that means a pick-and-roll or an isolation set.
Whatever the choice, one thing is certain: "It boils down to having guys who can make plays," says Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter, a 15-year vet with two rings. Nothing beats a burst of speed and a tight handle when the D has ruined your best-laid plans. Teams that don't have a star who can consistently beat defenders off the dribble are toast. Check the names on the most recent Larry O'Brien trophies. The Spurs had Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Heat had Dwyane Wade, the Lakers, Kobe. Only the 2004 Pistons lacked a first-class playmaker, but they compensated with four legit scoring options.
We know what you're thinking: There goes the NBA again with its dependence on the one-on-one game. But there is more to late-clock execution than watching The Man do his thing. The standard pick-and-roll, for instance, is anything but, with its intricate placements and multiple options. The screener can roll to the basket, pop out for a jumper, set a pick for another teammate, repick with the ballhandler or—in what's called a "slip"—fake a pick before bolting to the hoop. That's a move the Hornets' Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler milked for a league-leading alley-oop total (107, per 82games.com) in the regular season. While the screener and ballhandler work, teammates position themselves for offensive rebounds or kickouts. With so many possibilities, a player's mind can race like Big Brown down the stretch. So as the shot clock finds zero, instincts—honed by repetition, film study and hoops IQ—take over.
"You have to make a quick decision," Chandler says. "You keep in mind the way the defense has been playing it all game, but you also read the defenders' particular movements. There's no time for indecision or a repick. You have to be totally focused on getting the shot up."
Some elite creators prefer to wave off screens. "A lot of times, if I get a pick, it puts less pressure on the defense because it gives them a better chance to double-team me," says LeBron, who might as well be channeling Kobe. "Besides, if I have to give it up to a big man on the perimeter, it may be hard for him to make a play from there." Better the Cavaliers spread the floor in one of their much-praised iso sets.
Then again, none of it matters if the players can't execute with now-or-never defenders in their chests. "The teams that win make smart decisions with the ball," a scout says. "You rarely see the good teams getting shot-clock violations or throwing up desperation heaves, because they understand that execution is at a premium."
In fact, some teams game-plan to set up late-clock possessions. Veteran squads like the Pistons and Celtics will, on occasion, milk as many of those 24 ticks as possible to control tempo and wear down rivals. Nothing demoralizes a defense more than giving up a basket after working hard for 21 seconds. Says Rivers, "We want to score in the first six seconds or we want to execute them to death."
In the end, that is why experience matters so much in the postseason. Forget the frenzied crowd, the heightened stakes and the millions watching on TV. What most rattles upstarts are those many moments of split-second decision.
There's no time to panic when someone yells "Butter."
Everyone has a quick hitter they count on to beat the 24-second buzzer. Here's what each of the remaining teams in the NBA playoffs look to do when shot-clock time is short.
Celtics: Talk about options. Paul Pierce can be deadly when he's isolated on the wing. But if that doesn't work out, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett will run a pick-and-pop that's scary because of the duo's versatility. Allen is one of the few players who consistently can dribble behind a screen, step back and sink a trey over outstretched arms. And no one slips to the rim for a short J like KG.
Lakers: When in doubt, get it to Kobe—and keep the screeners away. "Kobe is the kingpin of don't-even -think-about-coming-over-here -and-picking," says a scout. "He wants his teammates out of the way."
Pistons: Detroit doesn't have one true off-the-dribble creator. That's okay—they have four legit scoring options: Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince. All can deliver late in the 24-second clock; no other team can claim such depth. The Pistons do have a first choice, though: a pick-and-pop featuring Billups and Sheed.
Spurs: They'll run a pick-and-roll with Duncan and one of their two star guards. Because he's a better outside shooter, Manu Ginobili gives the team more options. Then again, no one can keep Tony Parker out of the paint. Either way, San Antonio will get a good look.