High school basketball: Inside the timeout

St. Vincent coach Lance Phillips diagrams a play with his team during a timeout in a game against Rincon Valley Christian. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

St. Vincent coach Lance Phillips diagrams a play with his team during a timeout in a game against Rincon Valley Christian. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)


The Rincon Valley Christian boys basketball team was playing recently — coach Darren Nelson believes it was a home game against St. Vincent — when one of the Eagles got the ball via a rebound or steal and started dribbling the length of the floor. This kid was one of Rincon Valley’s best players, but not a particularly good ball handler.

As the boy ran past the RVC bench, Nelson was faced with a classic decision: to call, or not call, a timeout. The coach refrained. The player lost the ball out of bounds.

“We ended up winning,” Nelson said. “But if I could have gone back and changed one thing in that game, that’s one time I could have called one and didn’t.”

For most basketball fans, timeouts are downtime — a chance to catch your breath, let your mind wander from the action or engage in a little conversation. For coaches they are a means to reroute momentum, update strategy or send a pointed message, and are held in the same regard that a shipwrecked man might treat his last few bottles of water.

“Kids need guidance, and they also need motivation,” said Cardinal Newman girls coach Monica Mertle, who played collegiately at St. Mary’s and UC Davis. “For that reason, timeouts are really critical to the game, and how you use them is critical.”

Logistics of the timeout

The spatial layout of a timeout tends to follow a classic form: the five players who are in the game at that time seated on the bench (or on the chairs that form “the bench”) and looking toward the court, the coach facing them while squatting or sitting, the rest of the players and assistants fanned out behind the coach.

Sonoma Valley girls coach Sil Coccia wishes he could set up chairs on the court, like they do during lengthy TV timeouts in college.

He has to light into his players occasionally, and would rather do it out of the earshot of parents. Alas, high school timeouts aren’t long enough.

As it is, you find variations in the form.

“We stand during out timeouts,” Mertle said. “I find it’s a way to keep the girls focused, instead of sitting and losing track of what’s going on.”

“One of my assistants will grab a chair for me, facing the players,” Nelson said. “He’ll hand me a clipboard and pen, ready to go. That’s where having good assistant coaches makes a difference.”

Nelson will sometimes turn over control of the timeout if one of those assistants has something specific to impart. Bill Heath, who coaches the Ukiah boys, said he runs defensive timeouts, while assistant Von Pena runs offensive timeouts. Because of the time constraints, the message tends to be to the point.

“If it’s a 30-second timeout, I tell ’em one thing,” Cardinal Newman boys coach Tom Bonfigli said. “If it’s a full, I’ll tell ’em maybe two or three, that’s it. Sometimes a team tries to do too much, or there are too many people talking.”

Regaining momentum

Common themes show up in the orchestration of timeouts, yet each coach has subtle preferences. Most use a mix of guiding principles and gut feeling.

“I don’t like to wing things, because I’m not that good at winging it,” Coccia said.

Other coaches insist there is no set formula. Experience tells them when their team needs a timeout, and it can be for a variety of reasons.

“For me personally, probably No. 1 is to stop a run,” Windsor girls coach Jeff Paul said. “If a team is going on a run, you have to take that momentum away. If a team hits a couple of 3s, I’ll definitely call a timeout. Especially with my teams. We don’t tend to put a lot of points on the board.”

That’s the most obvious timeout situation, especially in the early stages of a game. Team A scores six straight points, or 10 straight, or goes on a 12-2 run, and the coach of Team B stops the clock to arrest the onslaught. Sometimes players just need a mental reset, especially if they are playing in a hostile environment or against a more talented foe.

Team needs rest or a lift

At other times, the need is physical. If a team has a short bench, or is hampered by foul trouble, its players may simply need a rest.

“We were 19 down to Montgomery (on Jan. 21), and we cut it to eight after three quarters,” Bonfigli said. “My guys were playing as hard as they can. When you’re doing double duty and burning extra adrenaline, you’re gonna blow your candles out. We got the game to one point, and I called time out for no other reason than I want, one, to rest my kids and settle down and, two, to emphasize the importance of the possession and the lead.”

Bonfigli said the majority of his timeouts are “dual purpose” like that.

Then there is the motivational timeout, the tool of coaches convinced their players aren’t putting out enough effort.

Late in the game, especially if the score is tight, the tenor of the timeouts usually changes. The time for brimstone or breath-catching is past. Now the whiteboards and markers go into overdrive, and the timeouts become mostly strategic.

Coaches tend to broaden their use of timeouts in the late stretches of games.

They might use one, for example, when one of their players gets tied up holding the basketball, whether he is caught in a double team or can’t recover after diving for a loose ball. Coaches would gladly sacrifice possession to save a timeout in the first half. But if the clock is winding down late and a team has a couple timeouts to burn, that calculation is reversed.

Use them or lose them

Another specialized maneuver is a timeout called to ice an opposing free-throw shooter.

“Yeah, especially late in the game,” Heath said. “If they miss the first one and they’re shooting one-and-one, I call it. But maybe not if there’s no one there. If there’s 12 people in the stands, it’s not worth it.”

Some coaches ice. Some don’t.

While these all may be valid reasons to call timeout in a basketball game, coaches feel themselves tugged in the opposite direction by their limited number of opportunities.

Each team gets three 60-second timeouts and two 30-second timeouts per game (with another full timeout added in each overtime period).

“If there’s something we’re not getting, that’s for a 30-second,” Paul said. “Against Ukiah we were trying to run an offense. I called a play and we were not setting up in it. I wanted to run it two or three times, so I burned a 30-second timeout in that case.”

Ideally, a team saves all of its timeouts for the second half. But few basketball games unfold ideally, so coaches are faced with tough choices. Is your team tired? How tired? Is the other team pulling away? How quickly? You can’t just call timeout every time you feel nervous about how the game is flowing.

“When I was a younger coach, I thought I had to teach them everything during a game,” Heath said. “A lot of times I ended up using all my timeouts in the first half, which was goofy. Now, like all coaches, I try to save them for late-game situations.”

Bonfigli prefers to have at least three timeouts going into the fourth quarter. Paul likes to stockpile two or three, Mertle wants at least two. Nelson wants to make sure he has two saved for the last few minutes of the game. Heath doesn’t have a set number.

“It depends,” he said. “Early this year I used all five against Mt. Diablo by the third quarter. We were up two, and we won by 22.”

That’s a bet most coaches are unwilling to take, though.

“I never want to be without a timeout in the last minute of a game,” Coccia said. “So I tend to really hoard them, not use them in the first half at all unless we really need to stop the bleeding. It has to be an extensive negative run against us for a timeout to be called.”

Are players even listening?

Timeouts, like other elements of coaching, represent an act of faith. Coaches spend a lot of energy deciding when and how to use them. And then they cross their fingers and hope those timeouts have an impact. These are high school athletes we’re talking about, after all.

“It’s that weird thing,” Piner boys coach Mike Erickson said. “How much do they really hear? It depends on what time of the game it is, and how tight it is. If they know it’s of dire importance, they probably hear a little more. Sometimes you’ll tell ’em something and they’ll break the huddle and say, ‘What was that?’”

And if there’s anything a coach hates more than using a timeout, it’s wasting one.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.


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