CLEVELAND – Inbounds plays are the green beans of NBA games, not all that interesting until the day they suddenly line up on your dinner plate and dance like the Rockettes in a Christmas spectacular.
At that point, they demand your attention, in much the way they have on consecutive nights this week in conference semifinal games in San Antonio Monday and in Toronto Tuesday.
So it was a legit question for players and coaches still participating, such as Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer, to identify proper execution, some pitfalls to avoid and so on from the world of Xs & Os.
“I’m assuming you’re talking a little bit about the OKC-San Antonio one?” Budenholzer said.
Well, yeah, considering that the Thunder’s inbounds attempt with 13.5 seconds left in Game 1 surprised even longtime NBA insiders with the number of things that went wrong and were uncalled in OKC’s 98-97 victory. From defender Manu Ginobili‘s toe touching the sideline for what should have been a delay of game call to inbounder Dion Waiters‘ thoroughly unexpected forearm to Ginobili’s chest to clear space, the play and the game’s subsequent final seconds generated an epic “Last 2 Minutes” report from the NBA and were chaotic from start to confounding finish.
Precisely what a team doesn’t want happening in the playoffs, when every possession allegedly is treasured.
“It’s definitely something you work on in practice,” Budenholzer said after Atlanta’s shootaround Wednesday in advance of Game 2 against Cleveland (8 p.m. ET, TNT). “There’s subtleties for the inbounder, things that can hopefully help him find the right guy. You want great spacing, hopefully guys who are coming hard to the ball.
“But that inbound position, I’ll just tell you, it is not an easy spot. But we practice it, we drill it, we work on it. It happens a lot during the season so you get a lot of in-game reps too.”
In Miami’s overtime victory Tuesday, Luol Deng had turnovers twice in the fourth quarter on inbounds plays. First he ran along the baseline when it wasn’t permitted, then he miscalculated on a toss intended for Dwyane Wade. “If we would have lost – that would have been a bad one,” Deng said.
“It’s tough, man,” Hawks forward Paul Millsap said. “It’s a lot of pressure on that inbounding guy. Teams are doing a better job of guarding the play and putting pressure on that guy. You’ve got to make good decisions. But it’s very important, obviously. It can cost you a game.”
Atlanta assistant coach Kenny Atkinson was hired by the Brooklyn Nets in mid-April and will become their coach once the Hawks’ playoff run ends.
He said the Hawks spend considerable time — especially in the playoffs — on both executing and defending sideline and baseline inbounds plays. Atkinson said he thinks many NBA teams eventually will designate a coach for such “special teams” situations, not unlike the NFL. Most already have go-to guys to be their designated inbounders in crucial moments.
“Last year, [center] Pero Antic was almost like our ‘long snapper’ [another NFL specialty],” Atkinson said. “He’d sit there the whole game and we’d put him in with four seconds left because he was big and he was an excellent passer. He could just look over the defender.”
Patience and a thorough knowledge of the circumstances are key. “Your first priority is to read your options. You’re the quarterback,” Millsap said. “Take your options one read at a time. If nothing’s there, don’t force it. If you have timeouts, use ’em. But the worst thing you can do is turn it over in a situation like that.”
And the flip side? “If you make ’em use a timeout or force a turnover, force it to a guy they don’t want to give it to, I think you’ve done your job,” Millsap said.
Some teams put a big man on the ball to crowd the inbounder’s view. Others may drop off him to double-team elsewhere. The defense, generally speaking, can’t often count on the man with the ball to break the inbounds plane and forearm the nearest opponent.
Coaches, meanwhile, can’t always count on their inbounders to know every rule, in terms of what they can and cannot do.
“I would say we are confident,” Budenholzer said. “Yet life never ceases to amaze us.”