When holding the ball for the last shot (several examples in last night's playoff games), isn't it clear there is a tendency to wait too long?

I realize, especially when score is tied, you don't want other team to get the ball with sufficient time for it to set up a decent play and shot.

But taking that into account, the team holding the ball ("offense") should also factor in:

1) extra time needed to set up play and take final shot if offense players cannot get to planned positions, something goes awry, etc;

2) extra time needed if defending team interrupts or delays offense's final shot;

3) if offense misses but needs extra time for tip-in or for offensive rebound and second shot;

4) the possibility of the ball being lost or stolen while dribbling or passing around waiting for last shot;

5) the possibility that the offense is on its last legs, that the defense is the better or fresher team and will win in overtime, so there is a higher premium on the offense giving itself the highest chance to break the tie and win in regulation, rather than go to overtime.

More often than not, and especially last night, the team holding the ball winds up with a low-percentage shot (or even no shot). Taking all the above factors into account, shouldn't the coach and go-to guy of the offense start their final player a few seconds earlier?

James Goldcamp writes: 

The answer is, yes, especially with respect to #3 below. Also, another ploy is that when you know a team will hold for last shot at about 15 seconds left if I were on defense I would trap the ball handler and generally pressure knowing the player is afraid to shoot before 5 seconds or so and feel their coach's wrath; it's like a free option for the defense knowing you have a fixed strategy opponent.

The other thing that drives me nuts is with TV announcers where a team is down 2 points with the last possession saying "they don't need a three here", especially on the road. It's well known refs fail to call fouls at the end of a game ("put away the whistle"), so your player is likely to get fouled on a contested drive at the end resulting in a low percentage shot. Better to get a clear three off and win or lose it at that moment (again especially on the road where overtime will work against you); and if you shoot early enough three pointers are notoriously harder to rebound for the defense.

Just like in football, basketball experts and coaches are generally too conservative with strategy I think generally for the fear of looking stupid or reckless.

Pitt T. Maner III writes:

 Usually 7 seconds seems to be the amount of time chosen to start the last play. Given that you have about a 1 in 3 chance of winning with the final play in a tie ball game, and you want to eliminate all possibility of the opposing team getting another look if you miss your final shot, there is a bias to starting the final play late.

Could be considered an example of risk aversion. Better to not win and go into certain OT than to have a potential (if only slight chance of) loss when leaving 2 to 3 seconds on the clock.

Even the best players in the clutch are below 50%. The conservative NBA coaching decision is often to go with your best shooter on an isolation one-on-one and to start the move to the basket at 5 to 7 seconds. It avoids a lot of post-game fan negativity which has to be a consideration. You would think (game theory wise) that a mixed last shot strategy of alternating players and plays would produce a higher win percentage but what coach wants to try that in the playoffs! Better to go with 5 seconds and your known Jordan, Horry, Kobe, LeBron being double covered than go with an alternate strategy.

Here is a list of the best "clutch" players.

Even NBA players "choke" (on occasion), so that if the final play starts too early there is probably a greater risk of potential turnover or poor clock management if several passes are made. There is a "dear in the headlight" phenomena when there is too much time to think about taking a shot–too many options and players not used to handling the ball in pressure can cause a freeze up. The defensive team may also make a decision to foul your worst free throw shooter. (although choking effects seem diminished in last 15 seconds according to following research)

It would be interesting to know what the risk of losing an NBA game is with only 1, 2, 3 ,4 , 5 seconds, etc. left on the clock.

Around 7 seconds appears to be the threshold time to running an effective play when taking the ball in from end to end.

This is a great article on the NBA choke effect:

We analyze the effects of pressure on performance using National Basketball Association (NBA) free throw data from the 2002-03 through 2009-10 seasons. We find strong evidence that players choke under pressure—they shoot 5-10% worse than normal in the final seconds of very close games. Choking is more likely for players who are worse overall free throw shooters, and on the second shot of a pair after the first shot is missed. In general, performance declines as pressure increases (as game time remaining decreases, and as the score margin decreases, whether the shooter's team is winning or losing). However, we find no evidence of choking when games are tied in the final 15 seconds. We also fail to find evidence of performance under pressure being affected by home status, attendance, and whether or not the game is in the playoffs.





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1 Comment so far

  1. Steve on May 11, 2011 1:18 pm

    A few factors to think about with respect to the last shot.

    What type of team do you have. For example, When zones were illegal, Michael would get the ball at half court and begin his run at the basket. The other four players would clear out and give him full access to the lane. One on one he was impossible to stop and if he drove from the line to the lane, he either made the shot got fouled or if need be took the 3 point shot. Review “The Shot” against Craig Ehlo and the Cavs. And “The Jordan Rules” definitely applied. Remember in the finals when Karl Malone asserted that he was fouled by Jordan on their last possession. I believe this was game six. Jordan got the turnover and won the game again.

    Modern Day example, Kobe gets the ball period. It all rests with him. His best versus your best. Mano a Mano.

    Lebron has D Wade to pass to thus creating two outs.

    Celtics are more of a pattern offense. The Big Three and Rondo.

    Bulls put the ball in Rose’s hands and the other players crash the boards.

    The rules of the game.

    If you call a time out after the basket is made you get possession in your offensive zone. Thus you need only a few seconds left on the clock to put up a shot. This is were college basketball and pro rules are in stark contrast. Actually under the rules( don’t quote me on this one) you need 0.3 seconds to do a catch and shoot from an inbound play. The NBA put these rules into effect to increase the drama.

    I suspect that free throws made near the end of the game “The Choke effect” can be due in part as to who is taking the free throws. Shaq is a 50% prop. “Hack a Shaq” used to be a strategy until they changed the rules. Dwight Howard is worse at the line. Ben Wallace can’t throw it in the ocean.


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