That Last 7.7 Seconds in Phoenix

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

When a player executes something as dramatic as Roger Mason's buzzer-beating 3PM for the Spurs yesterday, much of what precedes it tends to fade from our memory. That's especially true if your sensory hard drive is filled with 240 minutes of basketball viewed over a 13-hour period. I'd forgotten about the moments just before Mason's shot until I read Michael Schwartz's tremendous recap of the PHX-SA game at Valley of the Suns. I then re-watched the inbounds set the Suns ran with the game tied 88-88, 7.7 seconds remaining on the clock.

Remember, the Spurs had just trapped Steve Nash against the sideline, forcing the Suns to call a timeout. Coming out of the huddle, Grant Hill is the inbounder for the Suns. Here's VoTS's account:

Again, Nash set a nice back pick on Michael Finley, who was guarding Grant Hill, and Tony Parker decided against switching onto Hill. That left Hill wide open for a go-ahead layup after Amare hit him with another beautiful pass from up high.

With the shot clock running down, I was thinking, "Shoot the damn ball already Amare! so as to avoid a shot clock violation, before he hit Hill with a perfect assist to beat the clock.

It was a beautiful set run with uncanny precision, the kind of payoff you want to see after being parked in front of your set for two and a half hours. Schwartz reminds us, "the Suns used the same play that beat Orlando earlier this month." [You can watch a replay of that set against the Magic at about the 1:41 mark of this highlight package.]

The Spurs countered with that drive-and-kick from Tony Parker to Roger Mason in the far corner. You can view the play at the 1:08 mark of this highlight reel:

Spurs bloggers, 48 Minutes of Hell, insist that composure is coached:

Speaking of a moment late in the game, Tim Duncan reports, "That was a specific line that he (Popovich) used, 'it will probably come down to one play in this game' and it did come down to that." If one wonders how the Spurs manage to devastate the Suns with such frequency, this is undoubtedly part of the equation. Pop coaches composure into his squad; he allows them to prepare for the big moment minutes before it arrives. Popovich may not be a Zen Master, but he is a masterclass coach. This is a classic example of that psychological aspect of elite coaching which separates the gold from the dross. Or, if you will, this is the thing that separates the Spurs from the Suns.

One of the great discussions among statisticians -- and the debate has been most heated in the baseball world -- is about whether clutch play is real. Come to think of it, the discussion rages in the theoretical world as well. For many years, the Sabermetric community claimed there was no evidence to support the existence of 'clutch' in baseball, but many sabermetricians have since shifted to a more agnostic position. In basketball, the "last possession" situation lends itself to a more intensive examination of "clutch." Hoops fans can spend hours debating who they want taking the last shot of the universe's most important game. And there's more empirical evidence -- though the data aren't conclusive -- to suggest that certain players have that intangible ability to hit The Big Shot. So 48 Minutes of Hell offers a fascinating derivative to this question: Who do you want coaching the last possession of the game that will decide the fate of humanity?