How to Stall

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Basketball teams are complex systems and games are conflicts between two teams. Since complex systems function unpredictably, it can’t be known what will happen in a game.

So, nothing can guarantee that a team wins.

That why a coach’s job is not to guarantee a win. It’s impossible. Rather, the job is to maximise the probability of a win.

Preparing for a game, the coach decides upon a game plan, to use certain tactics. At that point it is by definition impossible to know how the game will unfold.

As the game unfolds, the coach should adjust her tactics accordingly. Remember, the goal is to optimise the probability of the win. The game plan can’t cover all possible scenarios.

The score is 0–0 with 40.00 to go. But when the team is ahead 56–43 with 3.20 to go, the situation is quite different, obviously.

Perhaps less obviously, since the situation is different, the tactics should be different, too.

My claim is that on the average, coaches change their tactics too late and too little. Often we have our teams do the same old thing even when we’re up or down by 13 points with 3.20 to go.

These are nine suggestions to consider when the team is ahead late in the game. The suggestions are not designed to win as big as possible but to win as probably as possible. Those two are very different things indeed.

  1. Start stalling early. “Early” is relative but I mean like at the beginning of the 4th quarter when you’re up by 18. It’s not going to be a popular choice but losing isn’t popular either.
  2. Use time-outs as early as needed. If the opponents start a comeback, use a timeout immediately. Use all of them early if need be. Don’t save your timeouts for last minute clutch situations but make sure that there will be no last minute clutch situations. It’s easier to stop a comeback with a timeout with 3.20 to go than to draw a winning SLOB play with three seconds left.
  3. Run down the shot clock. Don’t take any other shots than open lay-ups before there’s less than 10 seconds on the shot clock. Except if you’re stalling for a long stretch – like a whole quarter – then sometimes take an early open jumper in order to stay unpredictable.
  4. Run your press offense. Never ever improvise versus a press. Stay organised. Rather commit a 5-second, 8-second or 24-second violation than let them steal a risky pass.
  5. Get back. Instead of crashing the offensive boards, get back on defense to slow down the opponents’ break. Except that don’t overdo this. If no one ever crashes, it’s easy for the opponents to start their break.
  6. Foul to stop them from starting a comeback. When your defense makes a mistake, foul to prevent an easy quick score. This could be for example when the offense beats the close-out with a drive and you’re up by 13 with 3.40 to go. Don’t let them score. Hand check the drive. Make them inbound the ball and use more time.
  7. Deny open three-pointers. The greatest modern-day comebacks wouldn’t have happened if not for three-pointers. So deny open 3P attempts. An obvious method is to switch all ball screens. And to foul them when they’re just about to get someone open.
  8. Substitute accordingly. To protect the ball, you want to have your good ball handlers on the floor. Just as importantly, you want to play bigs who can switch ball screens and deny open 3P’s by their guards. Never ever put in your seldom-used subs if there’s even a remote possibility of a comeback.
  9. Never mind the score.  Some stalling tactics may enhance the probability that your lead will shrink. For example, if you concentrate on stopping the opponents from hitting 3P’s, some of their 2PA’s may become easier than they would’ve been under normal circumstances. Keep in mind that the goal is not to blow them out but to maximise the probability of a win. If the point difference goes from 13 to 7, so what? A win is a win is a win.

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