Basketball games are often decided in their final moments. Rarely, however, is a championship decided on a buzzer-beating game-winning shot. In fact, only once before has it happened in the NBL (a reverse layup by Peter Vitols in 1979).
It’s the stuff of dreams. Kids counting down in the backyard while a raucous imaginary crowd goes beserk in their minds.
For Ekene Ibekwe, Dean Vickerman and the 2014/15 New Zealand Breakers it’s now a dream come true. 1.2 seconds - a moment in time - none of them will ever forget.
What’s interesting, however, is the amount of preparation and planning that defined those 1.2 seconds for the Breakers. A moment in time made so much sweeter by the deliberate execution of a plan.
It started with a time out. 1.2 remaining, scores tied.
As Grand Final MVP Cedric Jackson angrily approached the huddle, still fuming about the foul called against him the previous play, veteran guard Rhys Carter addressed his teammates.
“We’ve come up with something all year,” Carter yelled. “Every time!”
Carter spoke of the times they’d come up big during the season, such as Ced Jackson’s miracle game-winner in Perth just three weeks prior.
“I wanted to make sure that everyone remembered that we’ve been down in close games before and we’ll come through again,” Carter explained.
Meanwhile, head coach Dean Vickerman was meeting with assistants Paul Henare and Judd Flavell in front of the huddle, discussing what to run.
Flavell knew he had the perfect play.
“I basically just looked at Deano and said ‘Gate Switch’,” he recalls. “I just gave him the play that was best-case scenario for that time and the position where we had it on the floor. That was the first play that was on my mind.”
That was it; no need for further discussion.
The Breakers had run ‘Gate Switch’ numerous times at practice over the preceding months and once or twice in games throughout the season. It’s a simple counter to the well-known ‘shut-the-gate’ play run across the globe to free up long-range shooters.
With 1.2 seconds allowing very little action after the catch, the play needed to be either a lob or a catch-and-shoot. The Breakers didn’t necessarily need a three so Flavell thought the decoy element of Gate-Switch would allow for a good look closer to the rim.
“It was really pretty short and brief,” Flavell said of the coaches’ discussion. “It was just basically those two words from me and Deano gave it the nod. We already knew why it would be good.”
Flavell had introduced ‘Gate Switch’ during a Breakers’ practice earlier in the year, when his ‘blue’ squad (the reserves) needed a game-winning shot to steal a scrimmage off Henare’s ‘black’ team (the starters).
At the time, Ibekwe had been struggling to adjust to the NBL referees so Vickerman was having him start games on the bench. No-one knew it at the time, but Ibekwe’s adjusted role would eventually pay off in the biggest of moments.
“Juddy was pretty quick with the ‘Gate Switch’,” shared Vickerman. “The only other decision was whether we’d have Corey [Webster] or Tom [Abercrombie] set the screen. They voted for Corey which gave us a smaller guy if they ended up switching that last one. Corey became the next option if Ikene couldn’t catch it.”
Vickerman then entered the huddle and delivered the calmest, most measured time out address you’ll ever see in professional hoops. It was a calm that’s typical of his personality, but was also born from the knowledge that the group knew the play well.
In a way, discussing that final 1.2 seconds with the Breakers coaches and players this week, reminded me of legendary coach John Wooden and his views on preparation. Wooden, who led UCLA to ten NCAA Championships in the 60s and 70s, never asked his players to do anything in a game that they hadn’t done at practice.
“The time to prepare isn’t after you have been given the opportunity,” Wooden once wrote. “It’s long before that opportunity arises. Once the opportunity arrives, it’s too late to prepare.”
And yet, so often we see coaches drawing up brand new plays for their players to execute in end-game situations. You’ve seen those time outs; they’re the ones that end in players asking questions and pointing at the board, coaches still barking instructions as they break from the huddle.
“Gate Switch,” Vickerman stated calmly to his players. “You’ve got it out, Ced. We want Corey setting the pick. Mika, you’ve got to go underneath on the gate. Go quick, E. Catch that thing and go to it. If we don’t have it, it’s Corey.”
That was it. No debate. No questions. No confusion. The Breakers had run ‘Gate Switch’ before and knew what to do.
For Ibekwe, those two words meant the opportunity of a lifetime.
“Usually to take a last second shot they call it for the wings, but I was glad they called it for me,” Ibekwe said. “I always wanted that moment to take a last second shot.”Out of the timeout, Cairns coach Aaron Fearne put 6’9” Mitch Young on the inbounder to trouble the pass.
Despite having the much smaller Cedric Jackson throwing it in, the Breakers weren’t worried.
“Total trust in Ced,” offered Vickerman. “We had no trouble this year with Ced making any of our inbound passes.”
“The good thing about ‘Gate Switch’ is that it’s not a lob pass that you need to throw it’s more a direct, shoulder-height line,” said Flavell. “With Mitch Young waving his hands up as high as he could it was never really going to affect the kind of push pass that Ced was going to throw.”
In fact, it was actually the perfect combination of inbounder and defender for the specific pass the Breakers were looking for.
“The way Young was playing it was more about covering the middle so he actually opened up the line that we wanted,” Flavell explained. “It actually worked out better having the shorter guy make that pass.”
As the Taipans scrambled to find their matchups (with Wilbekin amazingly moving from Vukona to Abercrombie to Webster) Jackson was handed the ball and an edgy Ibekwe began to make his cut. Only, to every Breaker’s surprise, the big man introduced an element of improvisation; a loopy cut to the wing instead of a hard dive down the lane-line.
“I was thinking ‘no E, that’s not the cut we drew up’,” Flavell recalled. “At the end of the day the player’s going to make the play but my first thought was ‘E, a little bit tighter to the basket, a little bit tighter’.”
Carter was thinking the same thing from the sidelines.
“The back screen was supposed to cut him down into the key for a catch inside the paint and hopefully a little hook shot or little turnaround outside the paint,” Carter said. “But Ekene went a little early and just kept running towards the ball instead of down the lane. It ended up being an 18-foot fade away instead of a 6-foot turnaround jumper.”
Vickerman, for a moment, worried about the new angle created for Corey Webster’s screen. An offensive foul here would, of course, have been devastating.
“Corey definitely had to adjust his screen,” Vickerman explained. “E had a bit of a loop cut going rather than the direct cut to the basket that we were thinking.”
For Ibekwe, it was about finding the open area and taking the shot he felt comfortable hitting.
“The play was for me to get the ball closer to the basket but I kind of looped around,” Ibekwe explained. “I didn’t think I would have a chance to get to the basket so I just looked to find that open space away from the defense, right around the area where I usually catch the ball to make a mid-range jumper.”
“I got a good pass from Ced and as soon as I caught it and let it go I just knew it was good,” Ibekwe said with a grin.
It was the beauty of basketball wrapped in 1.2 seconds of detailed planning, synchronized movement and exceptional skill.
You know what happened next…
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