I have watched a couple of thousand close basketball games in my life, either as a player, coach or fan. There are few things in sport as exciting as a close finish to end a game.
There are few things as painful as losing the lead of a hard fought game in the final minutes or seconds.
To prevent victories from becoming losses, it is necessary to have an arsenal of tactics to choose from to protect even the slimmest of leads as the clock runs out. Here are nine tactics to use to protect a late game lead.
Never leave anything up to the officials
Communicate every chance you get. Make sure you are polite and respectful and wear good quality basketball shoes. Remind officials of the rules. Let your captains do this as much as possible.
Long ago, my players coined the term “ice” for the tactic of running our regular offense as a delay game. The idea is to not alert the opponent to the fact the offense no longer is interested in attacking for a score, but rather is holding the ball for an uncontested lay-up only to run the clock out.
The reasons to run regular offense instead of a delay game include:
- one less offense to learn and master
- the defense may have a special trapping defense designed to disrupt a delay game (I have one so it is logical well coached opponents have such a defense).
- the opponent may begin fouling in an attempt to stop the clock and force a change of possession – the change of possession not only means the opponent could score, but the opponent can now apply full court pressure
- running the regular offense in attack mode but with no shot attempts allowed decreases the possibility of tentative play slowly creeping into the offense, allowing a shift in momentum favoring the defense.
- Ice can always be modified to “frozen” if the time and score situation allows
Foul for Profit
As much as I hate fouling, there is a time and place for intentionally fouling. I differentiate fouls into three categories, two of which are acceptable in almost all situations and one of which is NEVER acceptable.
Hustle Fouls: Any time a player attempts to take a charge I find it hard to criticize the attempt. The same is true when a player dives on the floor for a loose ball. These types of fouls are the result of hardnosed hustle which should be encouraged.
There are times when even hustle fouls are not acceptable and this should be communicated to the players. Time, score and personal or team foul situation may dictate a temporary moratorium on hustle fouls.
Fouling for Profit: These are fouls intentionally committed for a specific reason. For this tactic to be utilized, the opponent cannot be in the bonus. Just a few reasons include:
- fouling to force the opponent to inbound the ball again (especially if the opponent has called a timeout in order to set up a SLOB for a score).
- fouling a player dribbling the ball to force the opponent to inbounds the ball and use more time to set up their offense.
- foul a great scorer as soon the scorer catches the ball. This takes the ball out of the scorer’s hands and once again forces teh opponent to inbounds the ball.
Fouls: All other fouls are unacceptable. Period. Fouls are a result of a lack of hand discipline, being out of position, laziness, selfishness or frustration. All of which are inexcusable.
Time, Score and a Designated Inbounder
Some coaches feel it is not necessary to have a permanent, designated inbounder. I feel it is essential. Inbounders should be trained to think like point guards and be held equally responsible for defeating pressure and running out the clock. In addition to the skills needed to inbounds the ball against pressure and to defeat a full court pressure defense, designated inbounders must be trained in how to handle a wide number of time and score scenarios.
Here are two examples of how a trained designated inbounder can make a huge difference in a key, late game pressure situation.
First, calling timeout without calling timeout. In dead ball situations when the opponent is pressing and going to attempt to get a five second count or an interception, the designated inbounder should inform the official prior to receiving the ball he/she is going to call a timeout on the count of four if the ball cannot be inbounded. The inbounder then counts a slow count out load and at the count of four calls timeout. Usually the official will call the timeout for the inbounder.
This approach insures no confusion on the timeout to avoid the five-second violation.
Another great example involves both the point guard and the designated inbounder. If the opponent scores and the offense still has the lead, if .049 seconds or less remains, there is no need to inbounds the ball and risk a turnover and score. The inbounder must indicate this tactic will be used to all three officials as the game winds down, to make sure a whistle happy ref does not stop the clock.
If there is only one clock in the gym and it is behind the designated inbounder, the point guard is responsible to check the clock and let the inbounder know whether or not it is necessary to inbound the ball.
If there are two clocks or the clock is facing the designated inbounder, it is both player’s responsibility to be aware of the time.
Finally, it is essential in this situation to rebound the ball out of the net to prevent the opponent from stopping the clock by interfering with the ball. Make sure you have use in ground and adjustable basketball hoop during training session.Since most officials give a warning before assessing the penalty for this infraction, well-coached teams may take the chance and deflect the ball away after the made basket to stop the clock and force the ball to be inbounded.
I am not a fan personally of multiple defenses. Having said that, there are lots of coaches who have great success using this approach.
I will also readily admit hybrid defenses like a box and one or a triangle and two can induce either panic, a timeout or a much slower approach in attacking this type of defense. All of which are positives for a team who is protecting a lead. Caution should be used in suddenly springing a hybrid defense on an opponent. Team’s who see such a defense on a regular basis are often prepared to attack a hybrid defense just as effectively as any other defense.
If you plan to use this tactic and anticipate a close game, it is worth investigating to determine of the opponent is ready to attack such a defense.
No Help Defense
When you are behind and you have a group of players who are excellent 3-point shooters, the 3-point shot is your friend. So are tactics like the penetrate-and-pitch, Euro, etc.
With this in mind, the 2-point shot becomes the friend of the team in the lead. If you are going to get scored on, you want it to be a 2-point shot, not a 3-point shot.
If you know the opponent is going to look to take as many 3-point shots as possible, a great tactic is to identify who the 3-point shooters are and tell your defenders to play “no help” denial defense on the 3-point shooters.
This means not giving help on dribble penetration that is designed to draw the defender of the 3-point shooter to the ball. It is better to give up the lay-up than to give up the 3-point shot.
Never take your foot off the gas
For some reason, both coaches and players will “take their foot off the gas on offense as the game winds down, losing critical momentum. This in turn translates into tentative offensive play, giving the opponent to seize momentum and make a strong offensive run to finish the game.
Never let up. Show no mercy. If you are worried about running the score up, establish a restriction for lay-ups only and a required number of passes before the lay-up can be taken. Let your subs play. But never, never let up.
There are times when it is necessary to use a delay offense, particularly if the opponent has decided to foul for profit and force the offense to shoot free throws.
In this instance, two bad things can happen for the offense. The first is the ball is turned over due to the rough contact from the defense, with no foul called, or the increased, frenzied defensive pressure results in a turnover due to a travel or bad pass.
The second is a missed free throw, particularly the front end of a one-and-one.
This is the situation to send in the “hands” team. This group consists not of your five best defenders or offensive players, but rather your five best free throw shooters and three of your best offensive passers/ball handlers/receivers.
This unit has the best chances of not turning the ball over as well as the highest percentage of making free throws on your team. They should practice together as the “hands” unit, running a delay game or “icing” your regular offense.
It would also be wise to practice a soft press as a unit as well after making free throws.
Some pressing defenses speed the game up. Others zone presses not only have the opposite effect, they are very unlikely to give up a quick easy shot. One example is a soft 2-2-1 zone press.
Teams can break this press by being patient and taking their time. Since a trailing team cannot afford to turnover the ball, it has to take its time against a soft pressing defense.
Not only does this tactic have the advantage of taking time of the clock, the opponent almost always will take the time to set up its offense before attacking the half court defense after breaking the press, using up a few more precious seconds.
When the opponent gets into the “flow of a comeback” it can be necessary to disrupt their momentum. Standing around waiting to
play is an effect way to cause a disruption.
If you want to save your time-outs, which is often wise in a close game, substituting is a great way to disrupt momentum, even if you are simply alternating two players every dead ball.
Instruct the players to take their time to enter the game by walking slowly on the court to communicate with the player they are entering the game for.
The player leaving the game should leave as slowly as the officials will allow.
As soon as play resumes, have the next player to enter the game report to the scorers table immediately and wait. This way, on every dead ball you can substitute and further slow down the momentum of the opponent.
Keep in mind, this can slow you down as well. To prevent this, you need to practice this tactic with an emphasis on “keeping the foot on the gas” on offense and defense.
Players need to understand what is going on and why in this situation to prevent the tactic from coming back to haunt you.