Want to Come Back? Save That Last Timeout!

Coaches are far too eager to do this when trailing

When a team trails by four or more with less than 30 seconds left, everything changes in a basketball game.  The trailing team can no longer delude itself; it is certain to lose unless it completely changes tactics.  The comeback playbook is pretty well-established.  On defense, intentionally foul as quickly as possible to get the ball back.  On offense shoot quickly, either a 3 or the "quick two" so beloved by announcers.  Repeat until you tie the game or the game ends.

While the odds are heavily against a team trailing by more than one possession in the last minute of a game, avoiding a common mistake can at least slightly bolster a putative comeback: Don't waste the last timeout.

I have railed against this practice on Twitter repeatedly over the last year, and it reared its ugly head again in Tuesday's Bulls-Clippers game.*  The Bulls trailed 89-80 with 2:20 remaining after a Blake Griffin putback, but used a 7-0 run to claw to within 2 with 48 seconds left on a Marco Belinelli 3.  The Clippers ran down the shot clock until Chris Paul hit a likely backbreaking runner with 27 seconds remaining.  After a Joakim Noah reverse layup, the Bulls were unable to deny Paul on the inbound pass** and Paul drained two free throws to put the Clippers back up 4 with 21 seconds remaining.  Thibodeau burned his last timeout, along with much of the Bulls' comeback chances.

*While I generally love Tom Thibodeau as a coach, miserly is not the first word that comes to mind when describing his timeout usage.

**Another comeback killer is failing to double team and deny the opponent's best free throw shooter on the inbound pass.

Let's consider the advantages of burning the timeout, as Thibodeau did, or saving the timeout until the team has the ball with a chance to tie.  In the short term, using the timeout certainly has some benefit.  The team can save a few seconds by advancing the ball to halfcourt before inbounding.  The coach can set up a play to get a quick bucket.  And he can refresh his players memories on how to defend after the offensive possession.  Of these advantages, the only really important one seems to be in setting up a play to increase the team's chances of scoring on that possession.

The problem is, the Bulls don't need one score.  They need at least two.  Say the Bulls' best-case scenario occurs.  They make a 3 to get within 1, then foul.  No matter what happens with the ensuing Clipper free throws, the Bulls will get the ball back with a chance to tie barring a Clipper offensive board.  Unfortunately, by that point the Bulls are very likely to be in a scenario with under 5 seconds remaining* and no timeouts left to advance the ball or even discuss what play to run.  Almost invariably, this desperate situation results in a hopeless shot from halfcourt or beyond to try to tie or win the game.**

*One might quibble with the idea that the Bulls will have so little time left after one exchange of possessions.  But that's only if things go ideally.  If the Bulls only make a two, or miss and have to foul again, it is even more likely the Bulls will be left having to score with time of the essence and no way to advance the ball to halfcourt.

**On that note, it kills me when teams inbound the ball in the backcourt with 2 seconds left needing a score.  Sure, a pass into the frontcourt is risky and very unlikely to succeed, but at least if it's caught there's a reasonable chance of making Thomas Hill cry. Inbound the ball in the backcourt, and the team is consigned to a 1 in 200 halfcourt shot.

Look at it another way: Which of these two scenarios is more likely to result in scoring both times?

A)  Possession 1: Inbound ball at halfcourt with a reasonable amount of time to score.  Possession 2:  Inbound ball under own basket with less than 5 seconds left.

B) Possession 1:  Inbound ball under own basket with a reasonable amount of time to score.  Possession 2: Inbound ball at halfcourt with less than 5 seconds left.

Scenario B clearly provides a greater chance of scoring on both possessions, as the chances of going the full length of the court with so little time remaining under Scenario A are so poor.

Now, some would argue that taking the timeout before Possession 1 increases the chances of scoring on that possession.  Perhaps so, although it also gives the defensive coach a chance to set up his own defense.  But even if we accept the premise that the strategy discussed in a timeout increases the team's chance of scoring, taking the timeout before Possession1 means not taking it before Possession 2.  So it’s a wash; either way, the team will be taking one shot with a chance to set up a play beforehand in a timeout, and the other on the fly. What isn't a wash is the advantage of being able to advance the ball for Possession 2 to avoid having to go the length of the court with little time remaining.
The main counterargument to saving the timeout was put forth by a current NBA assistant I discussed this with at the Sloan Conference last year.  He said that by spending the timeout early, it maximizes the chances of getting the game within one score to begin with.  Perhaps so, but getting within one score is useless unless the comeback can actually be completed.   And, good in-game and practice coaching should allow the team to hone the ability to execute plays called from the bench on the fly without a timeout.  This is especially so when the opposing team is generally shooting free throws before the trailing team’s offensive possession, which should allow plenty of time to get a play called.  

By spending their last timeout too early, NBA coaches are maximizing their chances of getting within one possession, not their chances of winning the game.

College and High School Addendum
Saving the last timeout is nearly as important at the lower levels, despite the inability to advance the ball to halfcourt.  Optimal usage of the last timeout just requires a bit more strategy.  The key is to not take the last timeout after the opponent’s free throw, but rather to inbound the ball from the baseline to a player as close to halfcourt as possible, then immediately call the timeout when that player catches the ball.  The clock won't start until the player catches the ball, so the trailing team should be able to avoid having more than a few tenths go off the clock. If the team is smart enough to take a referee aside and alert him to the strategy before the play so he will know to blow his whistle faster, that can help to minimize the elapsed time even further.  The only caveat, of course, is that if the team only has one timeout remaining the team has to have practiced inbounding to halfcourt and be able to call this play from the bench.  But again, going through this situation in practice should have the team prepared to execute this strategy on the fly to save the final timeout.


  1. "And, good in-game and practice coaching should allow the team to hone the ability to execute plays called from the bench on the fly without a timeout."

    I think that's the key with HS and college teams. I could see an unprepared team needing the early timeout because they don't have the set plays from the bench ready to go--in which situation it likely makes sense to take the early timeout. (I only say this because it hits close to home with a certain college team I wish was better-coached.)

    But I like your hypothesis outside of those circumstances.


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