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Basketball Coaching: Basketball Late Game Strategies for Winning Close Games

By Dr. James Gels, From the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook
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Smart court side coaching can influence the outcome of a close game. If you lose by 30 points, the other team was just better than you.

The late game strategies discussed below can also apply to closing out a half, or a quarter. Getting an additional basket just before halftime, or at the end of a quarter, can be big in a close game.

End of quarter/half strategy

If you have the lead, and there is only 20 seconds left in the quarter, you may want to hold the ball for the last shot, so that you may increase your lead, and at worse, maintain your present lead without allowing the opponent a last second chance.

In high school or under, I would want the shot to go up with about 5 or 6 seconds left. This allows time for an offensive rebound and a second shot, but not much time for the opponent to get the ball up the floor off the rebound. Also, it takes some of the pressure off the shooter when there are 6 seconds left, as he/she knows there is a chance for a rebound and put back.

Know your players' strengths - substitutions

In a close game with a lead, make sure you have good ball-handlers/dribblers/passers in the game as you are going to get pressed all over the court. Keep the turnover-prone players on the bench.

Get the ball to your best free-throw shooters. Who is your "go-to" player? Get the ball in his/her hands for the key shot(s). Make sure your five players are all solid on defense... no obvious mis-matches.

If you are behind, get your quick, aggressive, good defensive players in the game to get a steal or create a turnover. If you get the turnover/steal, you can substitute in your better offensive players. Having a feel of how to substitute "offense for defense" and "defense for offense" is an important coaching tactic.

Costly late game mistakes - NO! NO's!

There are several critical errors you must not make in the clutch.
  1. Missing key free-throws.
  2. Turnovers - passing errors, traveling, forcing a bad shot.
  3. Shooting a 3-pointer when there is still plenty of time, and all you need is a solid 2.
  4. Fouling a 3-point shooter.
  5. Not blocking out, especially on a free-throw. Allowing the opponent an extra shot and possession.
  6. Getting caught and double-teamed in a trapping area (see "trapping areas").
  7. Getting caught with a 5-second call.

Notice that I did not list missing a good, open shot... it happens. It's not an error.

Specific late game situations

Here are several specific late game situations. Practice these situations. Players generally like these special situation drills.

With a 6 to 12 point lead

With only a couple minutes left in the game, I try to shorten the game by holding for a good shot, preferably a lay-up, and keep the clock running. As the late Al McGuire used to say, "the clock is your enemy!" Take a time-out and explain to the kids, "nothing but lay-ups".

Even better, make the call from the bench so that the clock doesn't stop for a time-out. Chances are, the opposing coach will use one of his time-outs anyway to instruct his players to foul and press... so you can probably save your time-out.

Al McGuire
Al McGuire

In "running the clock", you must still work your offense, looking only for a lay-up. I would always take the lay-up because it is a higher percentage thing than shooting free-throws or just trying to hold the ball. You can put the nail in the coffin with one last score.

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).

If you are up 3 with less than 8 seconds and the opponent has the ball...

This is a controversial topic. Many coaches would foul before the 3-point shot is taken, so that the opponent can only score 2 points from the free-throw line, and you win by 1.

Some would not foul because even if the "3" is made, at worst you are still tied. Realize that if you do foul before the "3", you could actually lose... first free-throw is made, and second is missed and the opponent gets the rebound and hits a 3-pointer, and you lose.

You have to decide how you're going to play it. If they are not good 3-point shooters (youth or high school level), I would not foul... but you might!

If you are behind...

Have your players push the ball up the court on offense, and full court press on defense. Use your time-outs to stop the clock and remind your players that the key to winning is tough defense and rebounding. You must prevent the opponent from scoring to allow your offense a chance to catch up.

Think in terms of the number of possessions you are down. If you score, you might call a time-out immediately before they can inbounds the ball. This not only stops the clock, but also allows you to get your full-court press set, where you can try to deny and steal the ball.

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 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 inbounds 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. Putting the whole game on the shoulders of your three-pointer shooter, who probably has tired legs, might be tough. If you take the "3" and miss, and the opponent gets the rebound, it's usually "game-over", 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 the game is tied and you have the ball...

Hold for the last shot and try to get that shot with 4 or 5 seconds left, so you have time for an offensive rebound and a second shot. But warn your players to be careful not to get the over-the-back foul on the rebound. Again, it takes some of the pressure off the shooter if he doesn't wait until the buzzer.

Try to get the ball inside for the high percentage shot... you may either get the shot, or get fouled and win it on the free-throw line. If you have an outstanding outside shooter, you can go "inside-out", passing the ball into the low-post, sucking the defense inside, and then kicking the pass out to your perimeter hotshot for the game-winner.

If you need to, call a time-out to instruct your players on this strategy. But realize that when you call time-out, you risk having your inbounds pass stolen. Even better, work on this game situation in practice and be able to call it from the bench without using a time-out (unless you need to stop the clock).

Less than 4 seconds and you have the ball going the full-length of the court... see "Full-Court Buzzer-Beaters"

A few seconds remaining and you have the ball at half-court... see "Half-Court Buzzer-Beaters"

If the game is tied and you are on defense...

Make sure your players all know their defensive assignments. Be sure to get help-side defense on their star players. Contest the shot with hands up, but do not foul, unless it looks like an easy lay-up... then you must make them win it on the free-throw line, which is not always easy late in the game with the pressure on and fatigue a factor.

Some coaches will have their defense try to take a charge on dribble-penetration. My experience is that unless it is a really obvious charge, you won't get the call from the ref when the game is on the line.

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/her, if they are not in the bonus. If the free throw is missed, 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 made free throws.

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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