By John Krolik
Special to The Examiner
It’s one of the most iconic images — the star player taking the last shot as the clock winds down. A play NBA fans obsess over, “which player would you rather have take the last shot?” can often stand in as shorthand for “which player do you think is better?” A team’s best player is expected to be their closer: the player who comes up the biggest when the stakes are at their highest.
Players are highly conscious of this. Look no further than the 1994 series between the Knicks and the Jordan-less Bulls, when Scottie Pippen infamously sat out the last 1.8 seconds of a tied game because Phil Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoc to take the last shot. (Kukoc made the game-winner, so Jackson probably knew what he was doing.) Yet decades later, Pippen describes how he felt like it was an insult to not be given the right to the final shot.
There are no shortages of great players making iconic shots over helpless defenders in big moments. Magic Johnson’s junior skyhook against the Celtics. Reggie Miller’s eight points in nine seconds against the Knicks. Kobe Bryant swishing a fadeaway as time expired against the Suns. Damian Lillard sending the Thunder home with a shot from the half-court logo. Kawhi Leonard eliminating the 76ers. Steph Curry beating the Thunder with his own incredibly deep pull-up. LeBron James’ buzzer-beating bank shot against the Raptors. And, of course, Michael Jordan’s series-winning pull-up over Craig Ehlo in 1989 and championship-winning shot over Byron Russell in 1998.
The strategy in these big moments, so much as there is one, is about as simple as it gets: Give the ball to your best player and watch him go to work. If the player you want taking the shot gets double-teamed hard, then perhaps he can kick the ball to a wide-open teammate. Jordan giving up the ball to John Paxson and Steve Kerr for their own crucial game-winning shots comes to mind, although it really helps that they made their respective shots (in 2020, LeBron James was criticized by some for passing the ball to a wider-than-wide open Danny Green in the waning moments of Game 5 of the NBA Finals rather than take what would have been a twisting fadeaway over two defenders). Mostly, however, it’s all about giving your key player the ball and getting out of the way.
Over the past few years, this strategy has been derisively referred to as “hero ball,” especially since the numbers show that NBA teams shoot extraordinarily low percentages in last-shot or late-game situations. (Some of this has to do with teams liking to hold the ball for as long as possible in order to ensure they get the final shot. Conventional strategy tends to be conservative in this manner.)
With just over a minute remaining in Thursday night’s game, the Warriors showed a glimpse of a better approach. With the Warriors leading the Grizzlies 104-102, Steph Curry was double-teamed and forced to give the ball up, which he did by flipping a lob to Draymond Green near the three-point line. At this point, most teams would have seen Steph frantically darting back and forth to get the ball back, and then getting whatever shot he could up before time expired.
Instead, Draymond took his own initiative and put the ball on the floor for one of his patented “short rolls,” wherein he gets the ball out of a trap and dribbles at a canter towards the defense, waiting for them to react and then making his decision. On this play, two Grizzlies defenders stepped up to block Draymond’s path to the basket, leaving Juan Toscano-Anderson wide-open just outside of the paint, so Green gave it to him. After the one dribble it took Toscano-Anderson to get to the basket, three Grizzlies defenders had converged on him. Anderson made the only play he had available to him, which was to pass the ball to Gary Payton II, who happened to be wide-open from beyond the three-point line. Payton calmly swished the shot, and the game was effectively over.
The Warriors still used the attention Steph demands to get a good shot, but they were patient and able to resist the temptation to play hero ball well enough. The player who ended up taking the shot had made 43 career threes in the NBA before that moment — Steph had made 2,994. None of that mattered, because Payton was the open man, and the open man is who should get the shot. (Kerr, who sunk a 17-footer in the closing moments of Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals off a pass from a double-teamed Jordan, likely understands this better than most.)
For the Warriors to be effective come playoff time, they can’t abandon the concepts that make them exceptional in the final two minutes of close games and lapse into hero ball. They didn’t on Thursday, and that’s a very good sign.