Last week in Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers led the Portland Trail Blazers by three points with nine seconds left in regulation. The Blazers set a double screen for Nic Batum who got a clean look at a three pointer and tied the game to send it into overtime. Later, Doc Rivers said he should have fouled in that situation.
Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, Portland found themselves on the other side of the same situation. The Blazers led by three with nine seconds left and the Thunder inbounding, needing a three to tie the game. Portland decided to foul Kevin Durant before he could attempt a three pointer and the Blazers held on to win in regulation.
So case closed, right? Always foul while protecting a three point lead in the closing seconds; don't allow the opponent a chance to tie the game with that seemingly common last second three pointer.
But looks can be deceiving. Yes, Portland won the game with their decision to foul, but the strategy very nearly went wrong three times. First, when Batum gave the foul, Durant, knowing the foul was coming, was trying to get into his shooting motion and arguably did. I've seen NBA officials give a shooting foul in similar circumstances. This is always the risk with the 'foul first' strategy -- if you mistime the foul and commit it as the shooter is in the act, you are actually making it easier to score three points, and worse still, creating the one potential situation in which you could actually lose the game in regulation, the four point play.
Second, Durant made the first free throw and then missed the second (though I do not believe the miss was intentional). Serge Ibaka was the first to the ball, and had a decent tip back towards the basket. The ball then fell to Durant, who had an open (if rushed) 10 footer. It's a shot he would probably make eight times out of ten, but he missed it.
Finally, by fouling with eight seconds left, the Blazers extended the game. As it happens, Durant missed a free throw and Damian Lillard made two to provide the final margin of four points. But if the free throws were reversed, and Durant had made both while Portland missed one, OKC would have gotten another possession this time down two. Fouling with eight seconds left as Portland did is creating more opportunities to score in a game where the team that's ahead really wants the game to be over as soon as possible.
There are too many variables in this equation to determine an empirically correct answer with any certainty -- too many for me to handle at any rate. But I certainly don't agree with Doc in this case -- not with nine seconds left, that's too much time. I'd rather have my team defend the three point line; in the case of Clippers-Blazers, Chris Paul should have been hedging out past the line, waiting for Batum when he came off those screens.
Fouling in that situation doesn't guarantee a win by any means. If the foul is ruled a shooting foul, you've clearly made the situation worse. If you don't rebound the miss, you're still not out of the woods. And in any case, you've stopped the clock, your biggest ally in the game at that point.
Just play defense and take your chances. If Batum makes the shot, he makes the shot. It would be interesting to know the league-wide three point percentage with under 10 seconds on the game clock in one possession games -- I assume it is not good, in the 10% range, but that would be the first piece of information to get.
As an aside, seven of the last eight Portland games have come down to a single possession with less than 10 seconds on the clock. The Blazers are 5-2 in those games -- which is actually much worse than their overall average in close games this season -- but wow is this team cutting things close. Some Blazer fans took exception when I called these games coin tosses after they beat the Clippers in overtime -- and then Portland went out and lost the next two in heartbreaking fashion. If you let every game come down to the wire, in the long run you're not going to be much better than .500.