One theme that has been apparent in the first round of the NBA playoffs is the inability of NBA offenses to make game-tying or game-winning shots in the last 30 seconds of games. There have been plenty of examples of this so far, and I will describe to you some of the highlights. In game 3 of the Boston-Atlanta series, Paul Pierce could have won the game in regulation, but missed a pretty good shot at the buzzer, which sent the game to overtime. In game 4 of the Orlando-Indiana series, Glen Davis missed a game-tying shot at the buzzer which would have sent the game to double overtime. In game 4 of the Miami-New York series, Dwyane Wade missed a corner 3 which would have won the game for Miami. In game 3 of the Clippers-Memphis series, Rudy Gay missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have won the game for Memphis, and in game 4 of that series, Chris Paul got the ball stolen from him with less than a second left, which sent the game to overtime. The one exception was in game 1 of the Oklahoma City-Dallas series, when Kevin Durant hit a floater with under 5 seconds remaining to give Oklahoma City a victory.
In previous years, we have seen many more buzzer-beaters in both the regular season and playoffs, so why is there a lack of excitement this season? I don’t believe it is due to the lockout and team chemistry; I think it is because NBA defenses are getting better and players are playing with more effort. We all know the saying “defense wins championships”, and this is proving to be very true this year. I believe that NBA players, more now then ever, really love the game of basketball and aren’t just doing it for the money. That is why the defense has picked up. In the 90′s and early 2000′s offense dominated the game and players would much rather have a game-winning shot than a key stop on defense. I think now, coaches, bench players, and even starters, take as much pride in their defense as they do in their offense, and this is making the game better, though maybe a little bit less interesting.
One player and team that all this is related to is obviously Lebron James and the Miami Heat. Lebron has faced much criticism about his late game inability to score, but I credit the opposing defenses for this more than I believe Lebron is at fault. One thing that nobody talks about is (with the exception of last year’s finals, yes I know that it is a huge exception) the Heat play great defense at the end of games. If they have a lead with 30 seconds left and the opposing team has the ball, you can bet that they will not score. Lebron has not backed away from playing defense in the last minute, even though he has sometimes looked a bit timid on offense. One example I want to look at is when Lebron and the Heat visited the New Jersey Nets last month. Forget about Lebron going off in the fourth quarter offensively, and let’s look at their defense. Once they took the lead for the first time with under a minute remaining, the Heat shut down the Nets on defense. Deshawn Stevenson couldn’t even inbound the ball against the Heat and got called for a 5-second violation. The defense, not Lebron’s scoring, won that game for Miami.
Another example I would like to look at is last night’s game 4 between the L.A. Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies were trailing for most of the game, but the score was tied with 20 seconds left and the Clippers had the ball. You can see a video of this play here at about the 3:05 mark. Chris Paul, to this point in the game, had been able to score at will and do just about whatever he wanted. He was even leading the team in rebounding. So why was it so difficult for him to score here? The answer to that is because of the clock. In a tie game when the shot clock is turned off, the opposing defense knows that the offense wants to shoot with as close to no time remaining as possible to prevent the defense from getting the ball back with an opportunity to win the game. If the offense wants to set up this situation where the worst-case scenario is overtime, their options are very limited. Everyone in the Staples Center knew that Chris Paul was going to be shooting the ball at the end, so this created a very easy situation for the Memphis Grizzlies defensively. All they had to do was wait until about 5 seconds were left on the clock, and then surprise Paul with a double team. He then turned the ball over and the game went to overtime. If there had been 40, or even 30 seconds left on the clock when the Clippers had the ball, they could have actually ran a play and gotten off a very good shot.
So what I will propose to coaches all over the NBA is this: when your team has the ball in a tie game with the shot clock turned off, don’t be afraid to shoot before the clock strikes 0:00. Take advantage of your possession, and run a normal play which gets your team the best shot possible. If you execute your play correctly, you will have the lead with under 20 seconds remaining and your team on defense. All the pressure is now on the opposing offense, and it is unlikely that they will be able to score against your 5 best defenders.