Crunch Time: Do You Practice the Possessions Before “Late Game”?

No matter how many times you’ve been at either end of a score and no matter if you have the ball or don’t, there are inevitably a few possessions down the stretch of a game where afterwards you say, “that’s where the game was decided”. Even though someone will say that possessions early in the game were just as important, you’re not in a mood to agree and you still focus in on the “crunch time” possessions.

Every coach certainly includes late game special situations in the category of crunch time. Most of us try our best to prepare for everything-knowing full well that no matter how many possible scenarios we rehearse, there will always be the “that’s the first time I ever saw that happen” situations. We can practice endlessly-tied, down or up various points with various times on the clock-on offense or defense-with or without timeouts-live ball or dead ball-inbounding or defending the inbound-and we’ll never cover the endless possibilities that games produce. But, we try the best we can to be prepared.

But crunch time is much more than late game special situations. Everyone in the game knows that and gets the urgency of those plays. What gets lost on many players and some coaches is how often the possessions before “late game” actually have a bigger impact on the outcome of many games.

Let me give you a typical example. Let’s say you’re up 4 with 2:22 left (shot clock notwithstanding). What’s your approach- stall, regular attack, something in between? Michigan St.’s Jud Heathcote used to run an offense he called “75” meaning his players could only take 75% type shots. That way, his players could still be on the attack. But how often have you seen a team in this situation act in a cavalier manner? You’ll see a team have a loose possession and not take care of the ball or take a bad shot. Generally these teams don’t recognize the importance of these possessions and/or they never practice them. This is an early example of clock management.

Now, flip it and you’re down 4. You see often see the same cavalier approach with the defense not taking it up a level- or even worse-fouling when they don’t want or need to. In both cases, offense and defense, there has to be “another level” that the coach insists upon and maps out the approach in practice.

No matter, what approach one chooses, those types of possessions have to have an extra level of recognition and focus. In a perfect world, you’d like to believe that all possessions are created equal. But, in reality they’re not. So, if a coach has a special designation for these possessions and regularly practices them-instilling in his players a sense of controlled urgency, his team will have better success in the game deciding possessions that creep up even before the easily recognized “late game”.

These possessions require more than a plan. They require everyone on the team with the same resolution that these will be our best possessions yet in this game.

How do you practice “crunch time” – let us know in the comments below.


  1. Our practice plan is set up offense day/defense day. We practice special situations every practice. These include end of game “up 5 with 3 minutes left” or “down 1, 12 seconds left, one time out, opposition shooting a foul shot.” We not only play the situation but then debrief, talk about what we did well and what should have been better. We have signals for who and when to foul. We believe that 70% of our games will be decided in the last 3 minutes (we will be up or down 3 scores or less in that time) and mental preparation is as critical as physical at that point.

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