NBA Play-Calling: The Difference Between Elite and Inept End-of-Game Execution

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NBA Play-Calling: The Difference Between Elite and Inept End-of-Game Execution
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The difference between elite and inept play-calling at the end of an NBA game can easily turn a win into a loss, or vice versa. And as we all know, an extra win or loss can be all the difference necessary to push a team into or out of postseason play.

Once in the playoffs, anything can happen. While it is undeniable that the league has a select number of elite teams, a title is technically within reach for any team that can extend its season. 

So essentially, how a coach manages the final seconds of a close contest could result in the difference between a spot in the lottery and a ring around the finger.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that the difference is easy to recognize, though. If you're just looking at Xs and Os, you aren't going to be able to figure it out because the strategies that each head coach uses varies dramatically depending on the talent on his roster.

One set of X-and-O principles that would work perfectly for Erik Spoelstra and the Miami Heat might flop miserably for Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, despite the fact that both basketball minds are more on the elite than inept end of the spectrum.

Instead, the principles that must guide coaches and steer them towards the promised land are largely theoretical, generalized rules that change based on who's on the court.

To me, there are two overriding principles that must be followed for a coach to have consistent success in end-of-game situations. Sure, letting your best player go to work in an isolation set might work out now and then, but as a whole, this is a poor percentage play.

First, a coach must actually have a system that the players understand. In a lot of ways, it doesn't matter what direction the team chooses to go in the waning seconds, so long as the direction is clearly chosen. 

Not having a plan often results in failure and slumped heads as grown men walk off the court in embarrassment, refusing to look at the scoreboard. Or it could lead to extra basketball, as was the case during Game 4 of the 2012 playoff series between the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies.  

The relevant portion of the above clip begins at 2:40, displaying Vinny Del Negro's struggles to create offense down the stretch. In the first of the two remaining Clippers possessions during regulation, the team is content to stand off to the side and let Chris Paul do his thing. 

This time, it works. CP3 is the best point guard in the league, so a positive result isn't out of question. But the second time doesn't go so well. 

After Zach Randolph knocks down a pair of free throws to level the score at 87 apiece, Paul goes back into an isolation set. There's absolutely no movement from any of the other four players on the court, and the onus is on the All-Star point guard to make something happen.

Matched up against Tony Allen, Paul fares poorly here. He doesn't even get a shot off, and there's still nothing doing on the part of his teammates. Although he went on to score eight points in overtime and lead the Clippers to victory, Paul didn't succeed here. 

Fear not Clippers fans. He's not the only one who has failed in a tough situation. 

After an undefeated start to his short-lived tenure as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Bernie Bickerstaff was overmatched in his coaching matchup against Gregg Popovich on Wednesday night.

Let's work backwards and start with the Lakers' failed attempt to retake the lead from the San Antonio Spurs. Once again, a lack of ball movement is the primary culprit here. The plan was to get the ball to Kobe Bryant, but the only thing used to set up that part of the play was a simple cut to the basket. As soon as the pass from Pau Gasol to Bryant was denied, the Lakers had no backup plan. 

Instead, they had an emergency on their hands. Gasol, a career 23-percent shooter from distance, lofted up a three and did not convert. While that likely wasn't Bickerstaff's intent, he set himself up for failure by the closed nature of his play-calling.

The play stands in stark contrast to the deceptive play run by Popovich's Spurs just one possession earlier.

It's tough to see exactly what happens until the first replay of the game-winner by Danny Green, which comes at 0:23 in the video above.

Just by the sheer amount of player movement employed by San Antonio during the few seconds that elapse during this play, it's pretty obvious that Popovich has thought this play through. He deploys Tony Parker as a decoy and uses both Stephen Jackson's cut to the weak side and Tim Duncan's off-ball screen to free up the best three-point shooter on the Spurs.

With just a slight gap between himself and Bryant's block-seeking hand, Green fires and hits the shot. The swish makes both Green and Popovich look good, but rest assured that the latter had a sound end-game strategy even if the shot had clanged off the iron.

Although I'm focusing on positive results to emphasize good coaching and negative ones to highlight rather inept decision-making, don't fall into the trap of analyzing these plays in post-hoc fashion. 

Of course, using strategy isn't just enough. The second of the two principles I hinted at earlier is even more important: playing the hand that you're dealt. It's of paramount importance that a coach is able to understand the strengths of his team and play them correctly. 

Take a look at these two game-winning plays from the 2011-12 season, both of which—ironically enough—involve the Minnesota Timberwolves.    

In this fantastic inbounds play that Spoelstra doesn't call nearly as often as he should, the Heat's head coach is afforded several luxuries here: the phenomenal passing and 6'8'' height of LeBron James, which allows him to easily throw the ball in over top of his defender, and the athleticism and explosiveness of Dwyane Wade

Here, he utilizes all of those advantages for the decisive two points against the Wolves. 

As terrific as Wade's cut may have been, it was a much more subtle cut that made this play. James Jones cuts out of the bottom-right corner of your screen to the top right, dragging Derrick Williams with him. By shifting Williams out of the weak-side, Jones ensures that James has enough room to make the pass to the cutting shooting guard.

And Williams can't cheat too much—although he still almost gets to the ball—because he's forced to respect the knock-down shooting ability of Jones. 

This is a perfect example of using your team's strengths to perfection. 

Rick Adelman is no stranger to great play-calling at the end of games either. In one of the most dramatic moments of the lockout-shortened campaign, he had the Wolves run a brilliant play that resulted in a wide-open three-pointer for Kevin Love. 

After Williams cuts around the mass of bodies at the charity stripe, Love pops out to the top of the key and receives the inbounds bass as his teammates close out the gap between them and prevent any Clippers defenders from truly contesting the power forward's game-winner. 

Adelman understood his team perfectly, knowing that he possess a unique player who comes in at 6'10" and can hit shots from the perimeter. 

If more coaches had similar levels of understanding instead of calling for isolation plays, we would see a lot more players walking off the court with their arms raised in triumph, just as Love did after that buzzer-beater. 

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