The Timeout That Never Was: An Exploration Into Advanced Metrics and Custom

The moment that has Nets fans abuzz after last night’s loss at the hands of the Cavaliers is simple: down 94-91, the Nets did not call a time out to set up a play for a potential game tying 3. After an incredibly messy possession, the shot the Nets got was a Kevin Garnett 3 that had little chance of going in. While I love advanced stats and bigs moving behind the arc is progressive, KG has made 9 threes since being traded TO Boston (and none as a Net) on 60 attempts (6 as a Net), so let’s nip “that’s a good shot for him” in the bud before explaining what went wrong, and why it went wrong.

First: Choosing not to Call a Time Out, In the Abstract, is Fine: the Problem is Players Don’t Live in the Abstract so they Need to be in on the Strategy

This a classic “advanced stats vs traditionalists” debate.  It is common for basketball traditionalists to believe that late in a game, you need to call a time out to set up a play, and settle down the troops. Coaches tend to gravitate towards doing as such to control the game.

However, in recent years, it has been common for coaches to choose to keep the pace frenetic, and push the ball as opposed to calling a time out late. And this tactic, believe it or not, has seen much success, in comparison to drawing up a play. For all the talk of setting up the offense, a timeout gives the defense a chance to set up. Not calling a time out can cause the defense to be off guard. In the NBA, it is difficult to score against a set defense: the chances of scoring on an unprepared defense are notably greater.

So, in the abstract, the more advanced stats based decision not to call a time out, is a good one.

However, note the bold. As with any advanced stats measure, what must be combated is that players in the NBA do not see the game through that lens. It is common, at all levels of basketball (especially younger ones) for coaches to call a time out in a late game situation. Players are used to the time out call. Such was the problem late for the Nets.

For all the valid discussion of “not calling a time out helps cause the defense not to be set,” the surprise tactic does not work if the offense is also surprised! When players are coming down the court for a score without a plan, not knowing if timeout is going to be called, kind of expecting it to be called because that’s what’s typical for them, you get a haphazard, mess of a possession. That is what happened to the Nets late. The “catch them off guard” tactic is a good one . . . if it’s a TACTIC. When you also do not know that that is the plan, you also catch yourself off guard.

The plan not to call time is fine. But it did not work because the players did not know it was coming. Lionel Hollins should have told the guys “get it and go, we’re not calling time out.” It is unclear if he indeed told them that.

Second: Yes, the Nets have had their share of late game failures. But the problem is the overall low level of offensive production, not individual examples of the problems late in games

As an aside, whenever fans comment on a relatively close game, the most common topic, inevitably, is the fourth quarter. You remember what you just saw. And the perception of the NBA is that the only quarter that matters is the fourth.

That could not be more untrue. An NBA game is 48 minutes long, and each minute matters equally. In the normal game, a team gets ahead after the first, second, or third quarter, and that team wins because the other is playing catch up. Look at how many blowout losses the Nets have: those games are over come the fourth. And in most of their fourth quarter “struggles,” these are not situations where the Nets are blowing leads, but situations where the Nets are behind, and make mistakes trying to dig out of holes. Getting IN the hole, repeatedly, is the problem.

The Nets offense ranks 24th on the season, 29th since mid November. This is a team that cannot score points. And is in very bad shape, in more ways than one. The poor fourth quarter play is emblematic of poor play throughout the game: this is not a team that plays well all game and then struggles late.

Such is life for a 10-15 team with less tradeable assets than, quite possibly, any team in professional sports.

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