Before Nuggets coach Adrian Dantley stepped onto the court last Saturday night at the Pepsi Center, he tucked a list of 20 plays into the breast pocket of his 42 extra long. The list included an isolation play for point guard Chauncey Billups, a rip screen for center Nen√™ and a zipper cut designed to free forward Carmelo Anthony at the top of the circle for a three-pointer. "I've got to keep these close by," Dantley said, patting his lapel. They are the plays he likes to call during timeouts, when he sits on a folding chair in front of the Denver bench, a dozen sets of eager eyes riveted on him. In the two months since George Karl took his leave of absence to undergo neck and throat cancer treatments and Dantley was named the interim replacement, there have been moments he froze in front of all those eyes and said his mind "went blank." And that was just in the regular season.
Last Saturday, Dantley coached his first game in the playoffs, in which every timeout is a summit. The image of the NBA coach scribbling hieroglyphics on a grease board while players scrutinize the markings like directions on a treasure map is as much a part of the postseason as white towels swirling in the stands. In a first-round series like Nuggets-Jazz, which pits two teams with identical records against each other, the slightest strategic advantage can make the ultimate difference. In other words, plays called during timeouts need to yield points.
Late in the third quarter Denver trailed Utah 82--79, and Dantley had every reason to freeze again. Chris (Birdman) Andersen was flapping his arms at the scorer's table, a South Park character was screaming on the JumboTron, and the mountain lion mascot named Rocky was pretending to assault a cameraman at half-court. On the opposite bench was Utah coach Jerry Sloan, veteran of 192 playoff games, who does not need a list of timeout plays in his breast pocket. "It's in his head," says Jazz assistant Phil Johnson. Sloan has even developed a seating chart for players during timeouts: center in the middle, guards to his left, forwards to his right.
Dantley blocked out the distractions, checked his list and found what every coach is looking for: a way to get his best player the ball against an inferior defender. J.R. Smith inbounded to Billups, who fed the 6'8" Anthony in the post. Anthony backed down 6'5" rookie Wesley Matthews, forcing a foul and two free throws. The play portended a tidal wave, as the Nuggets reeled off 47 points over the next 15 minutes and rolled to a 126--113 win. "I think I'm getting better at this," Dantley said. And he must, for every coach at this time of year is judged on his mastery of the TO.
NBA players sit through more than 1,000 timeouts every regular season, the vast majority of which feature lectures on taking better care of the ball and getting back more quickly in transition. "Guys get a little brain-dead," says Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. By March a glance at the bench during a second-quarter timeout can reveal one player miming a jumper, another spinning a basketball, a third howling at the Kiss Cam. When D'Antoni was coaching the Suns, he once diagrammed a play only to find half the team staring at a video on the scoreboard. "Let me know when it's over," D'Antoni told his players. "Then we'll talk."
The spike in intensity from regular season to playoffs is perhaps most evident in the body language during timeouts. "In the regular season you call a play in a timeout and you sometimes have to ask, 'You got it?'" D'Antoni says. "In the playoffs you don't have to ask. They're foaming at the mouth." Huddles get tighter. Coaches yell louder. Players listen closer. "What happens during a timeout," says Mario Elie, who won three titles with the Rockets and the Spurs, "can change your whole season." Elie knows from experience. He was playing for Houston in 1995 when a play drawn up by coach Rudy Tomjanovich in a timeout set up a three-pointer by Kenny Smith with 1.6 seconds left in Game 1 of the Finals, which forced overtime and spurred the Rockets to a sweep of the Magic.
The NBA is a players' league, with its freelanced fast breaks and improvised alley-oops, but the timeouts belong to the coaches. While Sloan immediately takes a knee in front of his bench, the Lakers' Phil Jackson first meets with his assistants on the floor, a tradition he started with the Bulls because he could not be heard over the blaring music at Chicago Stadium. Jackson goes to the players only after he has figured out exactly what he is going to say, a tack that has gained numerous imitators, not to mention delay-of-game warnings.
Coaches like to mull over their options and generally wait until 30 seconds remain to call their chosen play. Karl's pet play is Hammer, in which a ball handler drives the baseline and a big man sets a back screen on the weak side, setting up a three-pointer in the far corner. Late in games, coaches will often take a set they've run all night and give it a twist to cross up the defense. "Let's say we've been running a play where I pick for you and you shoot," says D'Antoni. "Now maybe we'll run a variation that looks the same, but instead of me picking for you, you back-pick for me and I go in for the lob."
The most memorable timeouts are the ones that produce plays no one has ever seen before. Paul Westphal coached the Suns in 1993, and when they were down by one with 0.6 seconds left in an April game in Portland, he came up with the cockamamie idea to have center Oliver Miller throw an in-bounds pass from half-court off the backboard, Cedric Ceballos leap toward the glass but let the ball sail over his fingertips, and Charles Barkley gather it on the short-hop and bank it in at the buzzer. The play worked, with one wrinkle. "Our guys ran around afterward like lovers in a deodorant commercial," Westphal says, and point guard Kevin Johnson injured his knee in the celebration.
The easiest way to evaluate coaches is in the possession immediately following a timeout. "I've always felt that's when you earn your money," says TNT analyst and former NBA coach Doug Collins. By that reasoning Alvin Gentry is in line for a raise. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Gentry's Suns ranked first this season in points per possession after timeouts. The Nuggets were fourth—impressive considering that they have played without Karl since mid-February.
Timeouts are not always strategic. They can be instructional (reminding a shooter to bend his knees), motivational ("Give me one f------ stop!") and playful (D'Antoni once told an opposing player, "I hope they leave you in the game because I'm drawing this one up just for you"). In the waning moments of blowouts they can involve dinner plans. Former NBA coach Dick Motta used to go entire timeouts without saying a word, to let his players rest. Chuck Daly would repeat the same word over and over, often rebound.
The timing can be as important as the message. "Phil Jackson lets his teams play through a lot of stuff," says former Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an ESPN analyst. "But I remember a series in Houston when he took a timeout early in the fourth quarter, and on the next play we threw a lob to Steve Francis, and then he took another timeout. It was timeout, play, timeout. But that's the playoffs."
Each team gets six full timeouts per game, plus two 20-second timeouts, and in the playoffs that's not always enough. In the classic first-round series between the Bulls and the Celtics last season, Chicago's rookie coach, Vinny Del Negro, ran out of timeouts in each of the first two games and got burned when Ray Allen put Boston ahead by three with two seconds left in Game 2. If Del Negro had a timeout, he could have advanced the ball to half-court and brought in Ben Gordon, who was on the bench with 42 points. Instead, the Bulls could only muster a desperation heave.
Just signaling for a timeout can be tricky. In Game 5 of the 1976 Finals, John Havlicek scored to put the Celtics ahead by a point with one second left in double overtime, and fans at Boston Garden rushed the court. Suns coach John MacLeod was swarmed, but an alert young guard named Paul Westphal called timeout even though Phoenix had none left. Westphal was whistled for a technical, and the Celtics made the free throw, but the timeout enabled MacLeod to draw up an inbounds play from half-court, and Gar Heard's 20-foot turnaround sent the game to triple overtime, in which the Suns finally lost.
Players are not supposed to take charge of timeouts, but some get overcome, like Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, who has a habit of grabbing the grease board and drawing plays with his finger. And in Game 2 of the 1984 Finals, Larry Bird famously told Celtics coach K.C. Jones, "Give me the ball. I know what to do," to which Jones responded, "Shut up, Larry, I'm the coach of this team." Then he gave his instructions: "Inbound the ball, get it to Larry, and everybody else get out of the way."
In last-minute timeouts egos are on the line as much as games. Scottie Pippen is not the only player to be devastated when he was passed over for a final shot. In 1997 the Rockets had Barkley, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, and when they called plays for Olajuwon, Barkley and Drexler would sometimes run to his spot on the floor in hopes of swiping the ball. "We had to tell two of them to get out of there," says Elie, a guard on that team who is now a Sacramento assistant.
The NBA has done more than any major sport to bring the viewer into the huddle. Three years ago senior vice president of broadcasting Tom Carelli started a program in which coaches wear microphones for every nationally televised game, leading to some memorable sound bites, such as Phil Jackson telling Kobe Bryant this season, "Kobe, you're not activating the ball. Activate it. You're looking to make passes. You've got to do some scoring here."
Carelli had the support of Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, president of the Coaches Association, who likes to draw up three plays in timeouts and ask his team, "What do you guys think will work best?" Because Jason Kidd is the Dallas point guard, Carlisle can be confident that they'll be able to execute their choice.
Carlisle does not offer as many options on defense. In Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals last season, the Mavs led the Nuggets by two with eight seconds left and had a foul to give. Carlisle and his assistants told the players, "Foul, foul, foul." Guard Antoine Wright tried to mug Anthony after the inbounds pass, but no foul was called, and Anthony made a winning three.
With so much emphasis on play-calling, defense after timeouts can be overlooked. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Magic was the second-best team this season on offense and defense after timeouts, a tribute to coach Stan Van Gundy, who spends as much time thinking about his peers' plays as his own. "When we play the Wizards, for instance, we know they like to run a lob for Javale McGee out of timeouts," says Orlando forward Ryan Anderson. "So that's our focus."
There aren't many surprises, especially at this stage of the season. With the game on the line LeBron James is going to get the ball at the top of the circle, Dwight Howard deep in the post, Bryant on the wing and Garnett at the elbow. Anthony is going to get it in one of the many plays on Dantley's list. And if the Nuggets want to make a recuperating coach smile, they can always bring back the Hammer.
Now on SI.com
Stay on top of all the action with Fast Break after each game at SI.com/nba
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle likes to draw up three plays and ask his team, "What do you guys think will work best?"
Photograph by GARRETT W. ELLWOOD/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
HELLO, 'MELO Getting the ball to Anthony is a recurring theme in the set plays Dantley (above) carries in his suit coat pocket.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (DANTLEY)
[See caption above]
MANNY MILLAN (WESTPHAL)
DUDE, THERE'S MY GAR After Westphal (top) called a shrewd timeout, the Suns found Heard for a game-tying jumper to force triple overtime in the '76 Finals.
DICK RAPHAEL (HEARD)
[See caption above]
NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
LIFTOFF Houston called Smith's number in Game 1 of the '95 Finals, and his three-pointer ignited a sweep of the Magic.