You Only Get One Shot
Grading the clutch plays of the 2009 Playoffs.
The NBA Playoffs are notorious for capturing thrilling finishes on a last second, game-winning shot. Emotions during this time are so palpable, it’s hard to describe in words; rather, this is a time when we see players at either their utmost state of euphoria and joy or in gut-wrenching pain and hopelessness. Who can forget Jordan’s shot over Ehlo, Derek Fisher’s heave in San Antonio, Robert Horry at the buzzer against Sacramento, or Magic’s sky-hook over Boston? While the picture that is ingrained and cemented in our minds is often the physical act of the actual shot, we tend to forget the designed play itself.
In the 2009 NBA Playoffs, we’ve already seen our share of amazing last second plays and shots; some have succeeded and some haven’t. Now, admittedly, a few of the shots have come from simple isolations but there are others that stemmed from intelligently designed plays. Below, we’ll examine the actual plays that coaches have drawn up, and analyze their effectiveness and results.
No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 7 Chicago Bulls
Game 1 | 9.4 seconds remaining | Celtics down 1 point
The Play: Ray Allen inbounds the ball to Rajon Rondo, and then sets a screen for Paul Pierce. Rondo hands the ball off to Paul Pierce who drives just right of the top of the key. At the same time, Eddie House is coming off another screen from Ray Allen and heads to the three-point line, just behind Pierce. At this point Pierce has three options; take the shot, pass to House for a three, or hit Ray Allen in the corner. Pierce elects to take the shot and Joakim Noah fouls him. Pierce makes 1-2 foul shots and the game heads to overtime.
This was an impressive play designed by Doc Rivers. He had his three best shooters open for a shot, and he trusted any one of them to take it. With nine seconds left, a quick set play would’ve allowed too much time for the Bulls to counter a made or missed shot. Doc knew it was all or nothing in this scenario and the play he drew up reflected that.
Game 1 OT | 3.7 seconds remaining | Celtics down 2 points
The Play: This was an out of bounds play that started under the Celtics basket. The Celtics set up in a standard vertical line formation along the paint. When the play started, Pierce headed back towards the top of the key as a safety outlet while Kendrick Perkins popped out towards Rondo as an illusion/decoy. Perkins then came back towards the lane to set a screen for Ray Allen who went around the screen towards the baseline for an open shot. He missed, and the Bulls won.
Yes, Ray got an open shot out of this, but that was the sole option. What happens if Ray isn’t open? Even though there was only three seconds left, there were plenty of other plays Doc could’ve called in that situation with multiple options for an easy bucket. Rondo is an excellent passer and should’ve been trusted with more viable options on that play.
Game 2 | 5.4 seconds remaining | Tied at 115
The Play: This was one of the best drawn up plays that I’ve seen so far in the entire playoffs. Ray Allen essentially went down to the post for a long v-cut. Rondo holds the ball above the three-point line. With a great screen set by Big Baby Davis, Ray Allen flashes to the three point line as he finished his extended his v-cut. Rajon Rondo hits Allen with a perfect pass so he can go right up with his shot (since Noah was a half step too late, the pass was crucial) and nails the three. Celtics win. Though Ray gets the credit for hitting the shot, Rondo’s sharp pass made the shot possible.
Everyone in the building knew Ray Allen was going to take that shot, but it was the simple nature of the play combined with excellent execution by the Celtics that made that play happen. Credit should also go to Paul Pierce and Eddie House as believable decoys, which had the defense unable to guard Allen as closely as they should have. Having multiple players that can take this shot makes drawing up the play much easier.
Game 4 | 15.4 seconds remaining | Celtics down 3 points
The Play: Once again, we all knew that Ray Allen was taking this shot. Down by three with 15 seconds left, Doc Rivers drew up another fine play to get Ray Allen open. Rondo comes off a pseudo double-screen by Allen and Big Baby and dribbles right. Allen initially flares out behind the three-point line, and ends up doing a backwards v-cut. At the same time, Big Baby sets another pseudo pick for Allen who comes back to Rondo on the right side. At this point, Joakim Noah is lost and mistakenly goes behind the screen (something you should never do when guarding Ray Allen) and Ray is wide open for a three. He drills it to tie the game at 96.
Ray Allen having the ball in this situation is no surprise. The play itself wasn’t spectacular and neither was the shot. The only reason Allen was as wide open as he was is due to Joakim Noah being completely lost on the defensive end and going behind the screen (again, huge mistake). If Noah fights through the screen, as he should have, there is no way Allen gets a shot that wide open.
Game 4 OT | 9 seconds remaining | Bulls down 3 points
The Play: This was, by far, my favorite constructed play for a last second shot of the Playoffs. Vinny Del Negro, a former Phoenix Suns Assistant General Manager in the Mike D’Antoni era, must have watched Mike’s coaching closely as this play was the exact same one that D’Antoni used to run with Leandro Barbosa, Steve Nash and Boris Diaw. Ben Gordon inbounds the ball to Tyrus Thomas in the high post, then immediately heads to the far side of the court. In the meantime, Joakim Noah sets a screen on Rondo (Gordon’s man) and Gordon flashes back towards the sideline looking for the pass by Thomas. Pierce is late on the rotation causing him to overcompensate, which allows Gordon an extra second to get his shot up. Gordon hits the long three to tie the game with 4.5 seconds left.
This was a fantastic play by Del Negro to get his shooter open. Again, taken directly from Mike D’Antoni, this play almost always leaves a shooter open in the opposite corner for a three. The key for this play is getting a solid pass into the post (D’Antoni had this go to Boris Diaw in his version while Del Negro put the responsibility on Tyrus Thomas) and setting a good screen for the shooter (which Noah did). The pass by Thomas to Gordon certainly wasn’t the best, but luckily for the Bulls, Pierce was late on the rotation. For someone that has taken a lot of heat about his play calling this season, Del Negro certainly got this one right.
Game 4 2OT | 6.2 seconds remaining | Celtics down 3 points
The Play: For all the well-thought out plays that Doc Rivers drew up to get a three-point attempt for Ray Allen or Paul Pierce, this one was by far the worst. With six seconds left, the ball comes in to Rajon Rondo who lobs it to Paul Pierce at the free throw line extended on the left side. John Salmons was all over Paul Pierce and ended up blocking the last second three point attempt by Pierce, getting the Bulls a win.
This was a terrible last play for the Celtics, and I was surprised to see. There were four players virtually just standing around doing nothing, and when it was clear that Pierce wasn’t going to get a shot attempt, no one moved. In their defense, Paul Pierce didn’t do much with the ball and didn’t create any back-up options for his teammates by dribbling to the sideline. However, to the Bulls credit, this was much better defense than the previous few games when Ray Allen had wide-open shots to either tie the game or take the lead. Bad play call by Doc, better defense by the Bulls.
No. 3 Orlando Magic vs. No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers
Game 1 | 7.9 seconds remaining | Tied at 98
The Play: This was another one of those typical plays to allow an isolation on the 76ers best offensive threat, Andre Iguodala. You could tell that if Iggy got in trouble, the players positioned in the baseline corner were instructed to slide out and give him bailout options. However, it was clear that Andre was going to take this shot over Hedo Turkoglu, and he drilled it with 2.2 seconds left for a huge upset in Orlando.
The shot was spectacular, but the play itself was somewhat of a gamble since Orlando is a tough defensive team. This was a very simple play by Tony DiLeo that put all the responsibility on Iggy. Luckily for the 76ers, Iguodala hit an amazing shot for the win.
Game 3 | 13.3 seconds remaining | Sixers up 2 points
The Play: Again, not a great play drawn up offensively by Tony DiLeo. After guard penetration, they kick it back out to Andre Miller with about 13 seconds left on the game clock and six seconds left on the shot clock. Andre drives in for a runner over Dwight Howard in the lane, misses, and leaves 7.9 seconds on the clock for the Magic to try and tie the game. Dwight Howard later gets fouled and hits two free throws to even the score.
At that point in the game for the 76ers, with a made shot, you can put the nail in the coffin for the Magic. But is an Andre Miller running floater over Dwight Howard the best shot you can get in this situation? If I were DiLeo, I would’ve run a double screen along the baseline for Iguodala rendering Howard ineffective, thus taking my chances on Iggy putting the 76ers up by four.
Game 3 | 6.9 seconds remaining | Tied at 94
The Play: Once again for the 76ers, a mediocre play (at best) and a lucky/spectacular shot gave them the win. The ball was inbounded to Thaddeus Young in the corner (still can’t believe that was supposed to happen), which is the worst place to inbound the ball against a solid defensive team like the Magic. Young drove the baseline (bad defense by Rashard Lewis), lost the ball, and hit a leaner under Dwight Howard putting the 76ers up by two points with 2.2 seconds left. I can only imagine the original play was supposed to have Young drive the lane getting Howard and Turkoglu to collapse, then pass to Iggy for a shot or ball reversal. But, I suppose this is moot since it ended up working out for Philly in the end.
DiLeo was extremely lucky that Young didn’t lose the ball on this play. Putting it immediately into Young’s hands in the corner was something I certainly didn’t expect and frankly still don’t understand. At the very least, I would’ve allowed Miller to drive the lane then kick the ball out to Iggy or Young when the Magic had to rotate on the weak side.
Game 4 | 5.4 seconds remaining | Tied at 115
The Play: Was there any real doubt that Turkoglu was going to shoot a three in that situation? I’m guessing that 90 percent of the people in the arena and watching the game on television knew that Hedo was taking a long three; something that he is fully comfortable with rather than putting the ball on the floor and driving in for a contested shot. The play itself wasn’t spectacular, but the shot certainly was.
I was lenient on this grade only because Stan Van Gundy knew exactly what he wanted to do and had confidence in his players. Hedo has bailed them out in similar situations and there was no reason to think he wouldn’t do the same against the 76ers. Yeah, it was a gamble by Van Gundy but I respect that he was willing to live with it. Sure enough, Hedo’s shot goes in and the Magic win. Not a fan of the jersey-pop afterward though…
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Utah Jazz
Game 3 | 11.7 seconds remaining | Tied at 86
The Play: With the game tied at 86, Jerry Sloan (still an underrated coach after all these years) knew better than to leave too much time left on the game clock for Kobe Bryant to either tie the game or win it. Derek Fisher let Deron Williams easily get the pass inbounds from Ronnie Brewer. As soon as Brewer throws it in to Deron, he heads to the baseline corner while Kyle Korver is already positioned in the opposite baseline corner. Paul Millsap is on one block and Carlos Boozer is slightly above the opposite block. Basically, this is an isolation play for Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer who would be available off the pick and roll. Boozer comes up to set a pick on Fisher. Deron Williams sets up the pick to perfection by first dribbling left to get Fisher off balance, and then crosses back over to his right where Boozer is waiting to set the pick. Boozer realizes that Williams has already beat Fisher off the dribble and doesn’t need to screen Fisher; instead, he seals off Pau Gasol in the lane and is available for a pass by Williams if need be. As Deron penetrates, the defense collapses (although a bit too late) and Kyle Korver slides into position for an open three if Deron’s shot was contested. Deron’s first step toward the lane was much too quick for the Lakers defense (to be fair, it’s too quick for any defense) and hits an amazing fall away jumper over Lamar Odom for the win.
Sloan knew that the key to winning this game was giving Deron Williams the room to drive the lane which would allow either a high percentage shot or drop it off to Carlos Boozer or Kyle Korver if the defense collapsed on him. Since Odom was a step late getting to Williams, the shot was open and Deron nailed it for the win. Great isolation play with multiple options to score.
No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 7 New Orleans Hornets
Game 3 | 11.2 seconds remaining | Nuggets down 1 point
The Play: With as hot as Chauncey Billups has been this series, George Karl felt very comfortable having him take the last shot…only it didn’t quite happen that way. The play was designed for Carmelo Anthony to penetrate to get the defense to collapse and then he would kick it back out to J.R. Smith. Since Smith is automatic from downtown, Billups’ man would need to rotate and contest his shot. At that time, Smith would swing the ball to a wide-open Chauncey Billups on the left side for the game winner. Well, that was how the play was supposed to work, but Carmelo had trouble handling the ball causing him to pick up his dribble and take an ill-advised shot.
The play itself was fantastic. Either Carmelo has a wide open driving lane, he kicks it out to Smith for an open shot, or if the defense rotates then Chauncey would be open for the shot after a ball reversal. Carmelo just couldn’t execute which made a well-diagrammed play look mediocre.
No. 4 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 5 Houston Rockets
Game 3 | 11.1 seconds remaining | Blazers down 3 points
The Play: Sure, the Blazers didn’t have any timeouts, but there is no excuse for the shot that Steve Blake took with 11 seconds left on the clock. Blake dribbled quickly to the three-point line and launched a horrific shot that came nowhere near the rim. In that situation, he at least needs to try and draw a foul or reverse the ball and force the defense to rotate in hopes that someone would either commit a foul or be late on their rotation.
No excuses for the Portland team, but this wasn’t Nate McMillan’s fault. After Rudy Fernandez hit a huge shot to pull Portland within one with 17 seconds left, the Blazers had to foul. The Rockets made both free throws but there was still a huge amount of time left on the clock (14 seconds). For Blake to take that type of shot with that much time left is inexcusable.
Game 4 | 14.8 seconds remaining | Blazers down 2 points
The Play: With 13 seconds left on the shot clock, down 2 points, there was no need for Brandon Roy to rush into the lane and be charged with an offensive foul. In Roy’s defense, however, there didn’t seem to be a set play drawn by McMillan as a back up if Roy got cut off. Essentially, the “play” consisted of a clear out for Roy to go to work on Shane Battier, a terrific on-the-ball defender. Roy beat Battier off the dribble initially but was way too out of control and ended up being called for a charge as Chuck Hayes slid over from the weak side to help.
With 14.8 seconds left, this was the best play that Portland could think of? Travis Outlaw was wide open for a three but the Rockets knew that Roy was going to take the last shot. No organized play was drawn, and Roy was out of control. This time, McMillan needs to own that he didn’t put the Blazers in the best position for a good shot to tie the game.
Game 4 | 4.5 seconds remaining | Blazers down 4 points
The Play: Down four with only 4.5 seconds left, it was imperative for Portland to get a quick three to have any chance of winning. To his credit, Nate McMillan bounced back from a few bad play calls in previous games with a much more precisely drawn play. It started with the Blazers setting up in a standard box formation surrounding the paint. Rudy Fernandez and Brandon Roy crisscrossed on the blocks with Roy heading to the left baseline corner and Rudy heading to the top of the key. Steve Blake hit Rudy with a perfect pass and Rudy drilled a long three to pull the Blazers within one. Not to discount the Blazers efforts here, but Kyle Lowry of the Rockets made this play possible for the Blazers by going around the pick (seems to be a theme here for defenses in the Playoffs) instead of trailing Rudy, which gave him a half-second window to shoot. That was all Rudy needed.
For the situation they were in, this was a well-designed play. Both Fernandez and Roy are obviously good choices to take that shot and in this type of play, spacing is the key factor. McMillan knew that both Roy and Fernandez only needed a small window to get an open shot. Steve Blake picked the right person to pass to since Roy was being covered well in the corner.