Beneath the Screen: When Time Runs Out

Being an NBA head coach must be hard. Not only do you take criticism when you’re team loses but even when they win on a last second play, as the Hornets did on March 20th against the Celtics, you still hear it. Recently, Monty has taken a lot of heat for his isolation play calls at the end of games. Is it justified? Let’s dig in.

The best end of game plays give you options. Rarely is a set that finishes with the ball handler driving just a hero-ball, isolation play. On the final play against the Celtics the Hornets had off ball movement designed to potentially create a drive and kick. In this case—and most score-or-lose situations—the ball handler (Gordon) drove and shot, forgoing the pass. And I’m okay with that.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks puts it simply: Make the best, smartest play. “If the right play is for you to shoot it, shoot it. If the right play is for you to pass out of a double team, I don’t care who you pass it to, you just have to pass it.”

Even after Anthony Davis’s game winning put back people were still critical of Monty’s play call. The mood seemed to be Well-It-Worked-But-I-Still-Don’t-Like-The-Isolation. But as I said before, that was just one of a few potential options. Gordon’s layup was a good attempt; a high quality look we’ve seen him make plenty of times before. His shot barely missed going in and Davis was in position to win the game off the miss. Take a look at it again. Roberts cuts cross court and and if Paul Pierce cheats off him to defend Gordon then it leaves hi wide open for a kickout pass.

It’s also worth noting that while Gordon drove, Davis stays away from the basket before coming in for the putback. That’s by design. It forces the defense to choose: cover Davis away from the play or lose track of him to play help defense.

The Celtics chose the latter and it allowed Davis to come in almost unchallenged to put in the game winner. The Celtics don’t box him out because they have no idea where he is. On the flip side, if they kept a man on him it takes away a defender from the basket and potentially gives Gordon an easier chance to score.

Monty takes a lot of grief calling isolation or isolation based plays at the end of game but there are also other factors as to why. Rockets GM Daryl Morey explains the timing aspect of it:

“I think the biggest misnomer people have … I’ve seen a lot of things like, ‘You should run a play. You should just do your normal things.’ Well, the reason why teams go with a particular isolation play, even though that often has a low efficiency because it’s just hard to score for anybody, I don’t care how good you are, is not because teams think that’s optimal for scoring, it’s because it’s optimal for controlling the amount of time the other team has after the play. If you’re just running a set and a team jumps it or tries to disrupt it, it can really change the timing of when your shot goes off and it’s a massive, massive difference how many ticks are left when the other team gets the ball.

So a lot of what people want to criticize coaches for which is ‘Don’t they know that guy is bad in isolation; don’t they know this?’ – it’s really because they’re not, in my opinion, thinking about the big picture which is controlling the clock the other way in terms of when your opponent gets the ball back. Even three seconds with an advance of the ball is a huge difference versus only having one second. The efficiency drop based on you controlling the clock the other way is a massive difference.”

But timing goes further than making sure your team is taking the final shot. If you’re running a play which relies on cuts and passes to create open looks, a slight slip, or good defense or what-have-you can really disrupt the play. Passes need to be on time and at the right speed, cuts run at the right spots. Change that, or the timing, even slightly and the play can break down. That might be okay if it’s the 3rd quarter but when it’s buckets or bust, to borrow from Kelly Dwyer’s post on isolations, the margin for error is nearly non-existent.

So many things can go wrong. Three passes per play, which is what Monty wants out of the offense, sounds nice, but that’s three passes that can be jumped, tipped, be too low, etc. Plays based off isolation are often just safe and simpler.

An isolation play is never going to be as pretty as one that involves all players working together. There is also plenty of data that shows it is not terribly effective as Henry Abbott outlines here. But when you think about it, is there any great way to score on a game winning shot? Morey doesn’t think so saying, “I think the reality is that no one is any good at crunch time.”

There are going to be advantages and drawbacks to every type of way to set up a game winning shot. Monty wanting to put the ball in the hands of his best playmaker and trusting him to score is just one way. Morey also tends to agree with this saying, “I think if you’ve got a guy who can create his own shot then you’re better off than not.” Maybe due to the fact that no option is all that appealing is why you see most NBA coaches running iso’s at the end of games.

How else would you like the Hornets to manufacture a last second shot? Anderson? Vasquez? Monty has called their number in those exact moments this season. There are times it’s worked and times it hasn’t. But you can’t run the same thing over and over. Setting up a big man underneath the basket for a dump pass is incredibly risky and the reason why you don’t see it run often at all.

Monty knows any end of game play ultimately comes down to execution. “I’ve been running the same stuff, the same tricky plays all year. It just comes down to execution…If it goes in, everyone, they think I’m Popovich if it doesn’t go in they think I can’t coach,” he said after the Celtics win. “I’ve got five hundred plays at home but you only need one. If the guy makes the shot people think you’re a genius.”

Even though the execution hasn’t always worked out, Monty know’s his plays work saying, “Bottom line is I believe in my system and I believe it’ll win us a championship someday.”

That sounds good to me.

Beneath the Screen is a reoccurring series throughout the season run on Fridays. See past editions here.

4 responses to “Beneath the Screen: When Time Runs Out”

  1. One of my favorite articles of the year. It’s the best reasoning I’ve heard so far about his end of game tactics. Execution on end of game sets like this will come as our guys get older, more experienced, and get more chemistry together. You can fault the play calling if you want to I guess, but Davis maybe doesn’t get the right spacing and position for that tip back if this is the first game of the year.

  2. One day, when Daryl Morey retires, I hope he writes a book. He could really open up on how people within the association think. Reveal all the little secret facts and views that fans just can’t know. I know I’d buy it.

  3. Great article. I finally understand why teams go iso at the end of games. Daryl Morey seems really smart.

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