This basketball coaching article was written by USC assistant coach Chris Capko.
Basketball is a game of runs. This means that you are never out of a game, but it also means that you need to learn how to play with a lead effectively, or you could cost yourself games. In my college basketball coaching career, I have been blessed to be a part of several different programs, one of those places being FIU. During my time there, we had a season that really strengthened my knowledge of playing with the lead in basketball.
That specific season we had a challenging non-conference schedule and had been lucky to lead in most of the games that we played. However, we had a hard time maintaining leads and finishing basketball games out. At the moment, it was not a fun experience, but during that time, I was able to learn some very valuable insights on what it takes to be able to play with the lead and how to finish out basketball games better.
Here are a few things that I have learned about playing with the lead in basketball.
Stay Aggressive With the Lead
It is human nature to let down once you feel like you have built a big enough lead. Mature basketball teams, though, keep their mental edge even when they are up, especially if it is double digits. As a coach, when you are up 10 to 20, or even more points, you have to coach as if you are behind.
You cannot begin to substitute as if the game is over or start tinkering with a new team defense; that is what practice is for. Maybe it is time to press more or run an offense that mandates that your players stay active. You must keep your foot on the gas and continue to be aggressive. The aggression in your team needs to stay the same regardless of the score. Yes, there is time and score, but regardless of the strategy at a given point in the game, your players need to stay aggressive and confident.
Free Throws Down the Stretch
It is called the charity stripe for a reason. I have discussed improving team free throw shooting with several different basketball coaches. The answers that I got from other coaches were very different and ranged from not practicing at all to making some kind of consequence if their team free throw shooting didn’t reach a specific benchmark.
Whatever the strategy is, though, it will be hard to close teams out and win tight games if you cannot make free throws as a basketball team. Not only does missing free throws allow the other team to start believing they can come back, but it also creates doubt in your player’s minds. This doubt doesn’t stop at the free-throw line either. It will begin to spill into other areas of the game, and before you know it, game momentum has shifted.
Making free throws must be a priority for your basketball team, and you must be able to handle your business at the free-throw line if you want to be able to put games away.
Here is something that worked for us at Florida International. What we would do is split our guys up on both ends of the court. We would set six minutes on the clock, and then we would have the two teams shoot free throws until that time was up. If a player missed the first shot, it counted as 0 for 2.
If they made the first one but missed the second one, it counted as 1 for 2. And, obviously, if they made both, it counted as 2 for 2. At the end of the 6 minutes, if the team didn’t complete our goal of 70% from the free-throw line, the whole basketball team ran.
This is a great way to keep your players mentally engaged at the free-throw line and put some pressure on them to make their free throws. The more pressure free-throws that your players can shoot, the easier it will be to handle free throw shooting pressure in an actual game.
Handling pressure on offense has two components to it. At times, we struggled with one or both of these areas at FIU. The first component will be live-ball turnovers where the defense can speed up the offense, force turnovers, and then get easy baskets. This will be the most noticeable way of a team not being able to handle the pressure.
The second way, though, can be just as damaging when trying to play with the lead. The second type of pressure is being able to play with confidence and run basketball plays. When the game gets tight, players that aren’t prepared for the moment can begin to put too much pressure on themselves. Your team may be able to handle the pressure in the backcourt, but are they also able to execute in the frontcourt? Players need to handle pressure bringing the ball up, passing, etc., and executing the offense at the end of the game.
A big part of having a team be able to do this is your intensity level in basketball practice. As a coach, you need to create an environment in practice that will be able to simulate game-like situations. Make sure that you run special situations with your team that will force them to be prepared for a game. It will go a long way in making sure that you can play with the lead successfully.
Finish Plays with Big Rebounds
When teams get up, defensive rebounding is one of the first things that goes out the window. Instead of turning and hitting someone on every shot that goes up, players start watching the ball. This not only leads to more chances at scoring for the other team, but it can also be a big momentum builder for the other team. As a team playing with the lead in basketball, you want to kill the other team’s momentum and not allow them chances to generate it.
I have heard some different coaches explain their philosophies on rebounding the basketball, and from my research, a lot of it depends on your team and its makeup. So as much as it is a skill, it is also a mindset. Rebounding needs to be an area that you are spending time working on and continually reminding your players of how important it is.
Watch and Learn from Film
Watching film is a way that your basketball team can grow exponentially. This is where you can show situations like what a good shoot is depending on time and score, who needs to touch the ball, etc. There are plenty of areas you can highlight. The key is making sure that your players know what is expected of them, and watching film is an excellent way to do that.
On defense, you can point out areas where they could have been a bit tougher or might have missed a defensive assignment. Both offense and defense contribute to being able to play with a lead, and when it comes to monitoring the performance of your players, film is going to be an excellent tool to use.
Playing with the Lead in Basketball Conclusion
Playing with the lead in basketball is a good problem to have. It is something that you, as a coach, are aiming for in every game that you play. So you must prepare your team to be able to do so. It is also important that you are ready for both offensive late-game situations and defensive late-game situations. The better you can be prepared as a basketball coach for every situation and have your team prepared for every situation, the better you will play with the lead in basketball.