First of all, realize that most games are won and lost by your players executing the fundamentals and plays that you have taught them in practice. But courtside coaching can greatly influence the outcome of a game, especially a close game. If you get blown out by 30 points, let's face it... the other team was probably a lot better than you.
Game planFirst, prepare for the game through scouting, or reviewing game films of your upcoming opponent. Find out who their best offensive players are, what their style of play is, what they like to do, and what their weaknesses are. If you have played this opponent previously, review your old game stats, notes and films. Here is a good habit to get into: soon after playing a game, make notes of the game, your observations and impressions of the opponent and save them. Refer to these the next time you play them. Then you can develop a game plan that hopefully will favor your strengths and attack their weaknesses, and deny their strengths. But I would not change my game plan from what we usually do successfully to something else solely designed to stop our opponent. Let them change their style of play to try to stop you! Discuss in your practices and in your pre-game meeting your strategy for playing this team. Discuss the defensive assignments so each player knows his role exactly, and who he will be responsible for guarding.
If you have never played this team before and have no prior information, try to learn early who their best players are and what style of game, what tempo, they like. Once you know this, you can make quick adjustments in a time-out, or at the end of the first quarter.
If the opponent has good outside shooters, use man-to-man to keep pressure on their shooters.
If their strength is inside post play, you can play man-to-man and double team the post with your weak-side guard. In this situation, whenever the ball goes into the low post, have your low post defender deny him the drop step to the baseline, and have your weak-side guard slide down quickly to prevent the move to the lane. Or you can go into a 2-1-2, or 2-3 zone to "pack the paint" with your defense. This leaves the outside more vulnerable. During the course of a game, if I realize that the opponent is getting most of their baskets inside, I may switch to a 2-1-2 zone to jam the paint and see if they can shoot from outside. If they can't hit the outside shot consistently, this may be the best way to stop them.
If they are playing with a point guard and two wing players ("3-out, 2-in"), we may try a 1-2-2 trapping zone.
Some coaches play only man-to-man and refuse to use zones. Others use only zones. As a coach, I believe I should use every possible tool or trick that I can to win a game. I personally favor pressure man-to-man, but will not hesitate to go zone if I feel it will give us an advantage, or a better chance of winning. One exception, teach kids in the lower levels to play good man-to-man, before getting into zones. So in practice, we will work on man-to-man defense, but also have the 2-3 and 1-2-2 in our arsenal, and periodically review our zone coverage patterns.
So when do you switch from man-to-man to zone, or vice versa? There are different ways of doing this. Some coaches will change defenses frequently, in order to confuse the opponent... as long as your own team doesn't get confused too! I personally like riding success until the opponent shows me that they can beat it. If we are doing a great job with our current defense, I will stay with it until it begins to fail.
You might also change from man-to-man to a zone if one or two of your better players are in foul trouble, and you are trying to protect them from additional foul exposure.
Keep it simple in your time-out huddle. The kids will often only remember one thing you tell them in a time-out... usually the last thing. So use your time-out to make one important team point... don't waste a time-out to instruct just one player... you can substitute for him and explain things to him on the bench quickly, and then send him back in. An example of an important "team" pointer might be stressing getting back quickly on defense and keeping one or two guards back if the opponent is fast breaking. Another example might be to change your defense, or your offensive plan, and another might be to simply prod the kids into increasing their defensive and rebounding intensity and overall hustle. But keep it simple.
I also like to be aware of our players' fouls. I have a formula that I try to teach my players in regard to staying out of foul trouble: "your number of fouls should be less than the number of the quarter you are playing in." So you never get your 2nd foul in the first quarter, or your 3rd foul in the second quarter, or your 4th foul in the 3rd quarter. If any of these situations occurs with any of my key players, I may sit him/her down for awhile. If we are down 10, I may need to keep him/her in there, and have to take my chances with the fouls, and maybe try to protect him/her, using a zone on defense. On the other hand, I have seen coaches essentially foul-out their own players with four fouls, sitting them down for a quarter or more because of four fouls... essentially the coach has fouled his own player out with only four fouls, and taken him physically and mentally out of the game. You might be better off letting him play carefully, than not at all!
Another point on substitutions... if you have eight or nine fairly good players, it will probably be to your advantage over the course of the season to play all these kids, with lots of substituting. If you are willing to risk a couple losses early in the season, you may be a much stronger team late in the season if you develop that eight or nine-man rotation into a good team, with lots of bench support. This also creates more team harmony and team spirit.
In "running the clock", I would always take the lay-up because it is a higher percentage thing than just trying to hold the ball, and you can put the nail in the coffin with one last score. You must still work your offense, but looking only for the lay-up. If you try to just "stall" without looking for the lay-up, the chances are greater that you may turn the ball over, or that you will get fouled, and a lay-up is easier than two pressure packed free throws. Also, if you entirely lose your focus on scoring, you may also lose your aggressiveness and momentum, and you become easier to defend. But if you have a two possession lead (4 points) with less than 30 seconds, hold the ball.
On defense, get back and play good half court defense. Avoid stupid fouls that stop the clock and allow the opponent to score when the clock is actually stopped (free throws). Contest (but don't foul) the three-pointer, and prevent the fast break and easy lay-up. If you only have 3 or 4 team fouls, you can play aggressively and pressure the ball… a non-shooting foul just results in their inbounding the ball (which you could steal). See "Defense for the Few Seconds of the Game"
Be aware of your number of team fouls. If you only have 4 or 5, you may have to foul quickly so that you are over the limit (7) and can send the opponent to the free-throw line. If the difference in the score is only one possession, I would just play very aggressively… if the ref calls the foul, that’s fine. If not, we may come up with a steal or force a turnover with our aggressive play.
If you are inside a minute and are down two or three possessions, try to get the quick steal, but if you don't get it, then immediately foul to stop the clock. Too often, teams will let 20 seconds run off the clock before someone finally fouls, wasting too much precious time. Remember that a lot of things can happen in just 20 seconds. After being down by two, our high school varsity scored 4 points in just 7 seconds to win it's regional final game this year!
If you are down 4 points, you don't have to go to the three-pointer, since it's two possessions anyway. Take it to the hoop and get to the free-throw line and stop the clock. Then after scoring, or making the two free throws, put maximum, deny pressure on the in-bounds pass, going for the steal, or quick foul. Even if you are down 3 with only 20 seconds to go, it might be a higher percentage move to go for the quick two-pointer and then pressure the inbounds pass than putting the whole game on the shoulders of your three-pointer shooter, who probably has tired legs. If you take the "3" and miss, and the opponent gets the rebound, you are usually history, because you will have to foul, and they only have to convert one free throw to "ice" the game. If there are only 8 seconds or less, take the three-point shot.
If your number of team fouls is 5 or less, play very aggressive defense. If the opponent waits until the last few seconds to make the move to the hoop, you could foul (unintentionally) the ball-handler. Since they are not yet in the bonus, they must reset and inbounds the ball with just a second or two left. If you still have 5 or less team fouls, you can be very aggressive in defending the inbounds pass… each foul will harass them and cost them time on the clock.
If you get the quick steal in transition, attack the basket immediately without calling a time-out to set up a play. Chances are, in transition, you will get a good shot, or get fouled. If you get the defensive rebound with 5-6 seconds left, get a quick time out to stop the clock and set up your last play.
Another "gutsy" strategy is: assuming they have a poor free-throw shooter, you may immediately foul him, if it is a "one and one" situation. If he misses the first free throw, you can gain possession and now you have the advantage. I would not attempt this if the opponent is in the double bonus, or if there is less than 10 seconds left... you may not have time to score after the free throws, should he make them.
There is a lot of basketball strategy that can be used in the final two minutes! I'm sure I have omitted some things and other coaches could add even more pointers. Watch TV and see the great college coaches work the clock late in the game. You can learn a lot from the TV commentators as well.
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