Game-winners follow some standard templates: the one-on-one jumper, the pick-and-roll, the drive to the rim that ends in either a lay-in or a kickout to a shooter for an open jumper. There are varying degrees of difficulty and excitement within and across those categories, of course, but the plays usually fall within that range.
Wednesday night, then, represented something of an outlier, because it featured two game-winners achieved by other means: the tip-in.
The first occurred in one of the night's marquee games: a tense, tight matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies, two of the top three contenders in the West. With 13.6 seconds left in overtime and OKC up 89-88, Memphis isolated Zach Randolph in the post. He faced up, tried to drive, and put up a tough runner over Nick Collison and the slow-to-rotate Kendrick Perkins. That left Kevin Durant to box out Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, who muscled into position and tipped the ball in with 0.8 seconds on the clock.
The Thunder still had a 20-second timeout they could have used to both advance the ball and try to draw up their own game-winning response, but as Daily Thunder's Royce Young wrote, "Perk inexplicably inbounded the ball [and] Westbrook launched a 70-foot shot that was wide right." OKC's prayer went unanswered, and the Grizzlies won 90-88.
Let's face it: the circumstances of this winner were much less dramatic. With seconds left and the New Orleans Hornets down 86-85, shooting guard Eric Gordon attacked the basket with little control and attempted a short runner over the always tenacious defense of Avery Bradley. On the rebound, Davis managed to sky over the decidedly more earthbound Kevin Garnett and Jeff Green to give the Hornets an 87-86 win.
It was an athletic play, one that provides a glimpse at the rookie's immense ability and potential. On the other hand, the Hornets are well out of the playoff picture, and a loss for the Celtics could only end up as the difference between the sixth and seventh seed in an increasingly jumbled Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Gasol's play, though, was a pretty big deal. The Thunder are now three games behind the West-leading San Antonio Spurs in the loss column, which seemed an unlikely scenario when Spurs point guard Tony Parker went down with an ankle injury several weeks ago. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are now a game ahead of both the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets in the loss column (though equal in terms of games back) for the third spot in the West. Beyond seeding, they've proven that they pose a significant challenge to both the Thunder and Spurs, the two teams almost everyone has pegged as the conference's top two contenders. It's possible we need to add a third squad to that list.
Yet these plays matter beyond their particular contexts, because they suggest potential changes to offensive strategy in final-shot situations. As teams have learned more about what constitutes a good shot in crunch time, it's become clearer that it's really, really hard to get regular, consistent good looks on the last possession of the game. Taking a shot slightly earlier can give a teammate a chance for a tip-in, just like these ones by Gasol and Davis.
While there's a risk in shooting too early and letting the opponent get an extra possession, there is a way to take an earlier shot in an intelligent way. Why settle for one bad shot — like, say, the attempts from Randolph and Gordon — when the tip-in presents such an intriguing possibility?
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- Marc Gasol
- Memphis Grizzlies
- Oklahoma City Thunder