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How Do Timeouts Work in the NBA?

In the NBA, each of the two teams participating in a game is entitled to seven (7) timeouts during regulation play. Teams are however limited to no more than four (4) timeouts in the fourth quarter and no more than two (2) team timeouts after the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter or after the second mandatory timeout of the fourth quarter. There are two mandatory timeouts in each of the four quarters which either team must take. As of the 2017-18 NBA season, each timeout is strictly 75 seconds or 1 minute and 15 seconds long.

The Introduction of Timeouts in the NBA

When Dr. Naismith wrote the initial rules of basketball in 1891, provisions for timeouts were not included since the sport was initially designed to be a pastime for students during winter when outdoor sports like football and baseball could not be played.

Put differently, the initial purpose of the sport was to keep rowdy students, who had lots of energy and time and very few options as outlets, occupied. There was therefore no need to interrupt games and students would be allowed to play for as long as it made sense for them to do so.

The popularity of the sport however grew in the first four decades after the turn of the new century and after the turn of the century, a number of professional basketball leagues such as the National Basketball League (NBL) and the Basketball Association of America (BAA) were formed to capitalize on the growing fanbase.

With extra incentives to win games, the leagues began allowing coaches to call timeouts in 1949 (after the formation of the NBA through the merger of the BAA and the NBL) in order to afford them opportunities to discuss strategy with their players. Further developments like the introduction of the shot clock in the mid-1950s continued to emphasize the importance of timeouts.

The Evolution of Timeouts in the NBA

By the 1970s the NBA had become a global phenomenon and continuously introduced rules in its quest to become a more marketable commodity. Emphasis was put on speeding up the tempo of the game which resulted in the following progressive changes.

  • In 1974/75, a rule was introduced that stated that no timeouts would be called once the ball is inbounded in the final two minutes of a game until it gets into the frontcourt.
  • In 1976/77, another rule was passed to allow an offensive team with an inbounds play within the last two minutes to either move the ball to midcourt or take it at the spot at which they previously called a timeout.
  • In 1977/78, the above-mentioned rule was tweaked to allow a team who calls a timeout immediately after gaining possession of the ball within the final two minutes to either put the ball into play at midcourt or at the spot where the ball went out of bounds.
  • In 1984/85, the number of timeouts each team was allowed in overtime was increased from two to three regardless of how many they took in regulation or previous overtime.
  • In 1994/95, back-to-back timeouts where play did not resume (where the ball is not inbounded) were reduced to 45 seconds.
  • In 2000/01, media timeouts were introduced (for televised games) to accommodate adverts. There were mandatory media timeouts in the second and fourth quarters. Full timeouts in regulation and overtime were reduced from 100 seconds to 60 seconds. The reduction did not however apply to mandatory media timeouts or the first two timeouts of each quarter. The number of timeouts per game also increased from six to seven with those in the fourth quarter equally increasing from three to four.
  • In 2007/08, the number of full timeouts at the end of games was reduced. Teams with two or three timeouts within the final two minutes were affected – a team could only retain one full timeout and a 20-second timeout. Any other full timeout would be converted to a 20-second timeout.
  • From 2006 to 2017, head coaches were allowed to call either full or 20-second timeouts at any time during a game provided their team had possession or play was temporarily suspended. The number of timeouts was also reduced from seven to six with teams allowed a maximum of three timeouts in the fourth quarter and two timeouts in the last two minutes. Teams were also allowed one 20-second timeout per half.
  • In 2017/18, the league undertook a major overhaul of its timeout policies. Full and 20-second timeouts were scrapped with each timeout now lasting 75 seconds. The maximum number of timeouts per team was set at seven (7) with each team being entitled to no more than four timeouts in the final quarter and no more than two team timeouts in the final three minutes.
  • Two mandatory timeouts were also introduced in each period. In case neither team takes a mandatory timeout by the 6:59 and 2:59 marks of each quarter, the Official Scorer is required to call the timeouts at the first dead ball and charge to the home team and road team respectively. Mandatory timeouts are set at 2 minutes and 45 seconds and 3 minutes and 15 seconds for local and national games respectively.

Why Timeouts Are Important in the NBA

As was previously mentioned, timeouts are critical in an NBA game and often decide the final outcome. Since each team has a limited number of timeouts in each game, the difference between victory and defeat comes down to when and how a team uses theirs.

Timeouts are technically called to temporarily stop the game clock and shot clock from ticking. Teams can therefore use them in the following creative ways:

  1. To draw up the final play(s) in the fourth quarter of a tied game. The offensive team will often draw up a game-winning play involving a star player while the defensive team draws up a counter to ensure that they either stop the play and force overtime or steal possession of the ball and attempt their own game-winning play.
  2. In such a high-stakes case, head coaches often use timeouts to substitute players and bring on those that are able to provide what they need – scoring and/or shooting for the offensive team and defense and/or rebounding for the defensive team. A head coach may also bluff the opposing team by hiding their true intentions through substitution.
  3. Head coaches also use timeouts to either continue the momentum of their team (if the game is going well) or to halt the momentum of the opposing team (if their team is falling behind on scoring or is allowing the opposing team to score by slacking off on defense).