clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

To Foul, or not to Foul

The Clippers won a game, Eric Gordon scored 41 points, Kevin Durant scored 46, Al Thornton scored 34, Cheik Samb played 23 minutes...  so there was no shortage of story angles after Friday's contest.  But one thing we haven't discussed, which frankly is tailor-made for a blog, is MDsr's decision to foul with a three point lead and 6 seconds left to play.

The first thing I want to point out is that one can never know if such a decision was the 'right' one or the 'wrong' one because frankly one cannot play the game both ways and see both outcomes.  All you can do is play the percentages, and of course you won't even get agreement on what the percentages are.

When Hart gave the foul, Milph pointed out that MDsr has an entire decision matrix dedicated to these end of game situations.  Based on the point differential, the time remaining, the time outs remaining for the other team, and probably 100 other factors the coach knows whether he wants to give a foul, defend the three, etc. etc.

(Aside - that's why he was so pissed off when Thornton gave so much cushion to Durant a couple possessions before.  Up six, 75 seconds remaining, it's still a two possession game as long as you don't give up the 3.  Related aside - for anyone who thinks MDsr is stupid, and didn't tell Al that, or even that he didn't tell Daniel Ewing to force Raja Bell off the three point line in 2006, you're crazy.  MDsr is far from perfect, but he is thorough and he is prepared - to a fault.  But players make mistakes sometimes.)

So in this situation, particularly the fact that the Thunder were out of timeouts and therefore would have to advance the ball the length of the floor in the event they made the free throws and then gave a quick foul to get the ball back, it met the coach's criteria for fouling.  The very fact that Hart was in the game to give the foul, and that the Clippers left Collison open to receive the pass tells you that he had a very specific vision in the huddle.

I hear people say all the time, 'Foul them with a three point lead; don't give them the chance to tie the game on a three pointer."  But you know what's interesting?  Almost no one does that.  Ask yourself - why is that?  Are coaches stupid?  No. 

This is the first time I've seen the Clippers give a foul foul with a three point lead.  Now, the Clippers are behind most of the time late in games, but I've watched almost every game that MDsr has coached with the Clippers, so that's a lot of games.  If this is the first time I've seen them give that foul, then his decision tree must be highly specific for when to do so.  But if I were the coach, I wouldn't give it even then.

The problem with fouling in that situation is exactly what happened in the game - the offensive rebound after the missed free throw.  What are the odds that the trailing team is going to make a three, when you know they need a three, and they're working with a short clock?  It would be great to have hard data on that, but figure the league averages about 36% overall.  Now cut that in half because you're all over them behind the three point line.  Now cut it in half again because they have 6 seconds to shoot.  Truthfully, my gut tells me it should be more than cut in half, but even so, you're now below a 10% chance that they will make that three.

On the other hand, let's say you foul.  Depending on the free shooter, 75% they make the first (Collison was nice enough to miss).  Now, they decide to miss the second intentionally.  League wide, between 25% and 30% of rebounds are offensive rebounds.  Now, you're going to say, "But on that free throw, the team with the lead is going to have inside position."  True, but isn't the defensive team supposed to have inside position in most situations?  Offensive rebounds happen when the guy with inside position makes a mistake and fails to box out, or when you just get a bad bounce.  So I'll use the low estimate for the league wide average - 25%.  Well guess what?  Now that they have the offensive rebound, they're in a much better position to score, and they only need a 2 to tie the game.  Let's give them a 45% chance of getting a put back.  75% they make the first, 25% they get the offensive rebound on the miss, 40% they get a put back....  equals a 7.5% chance they tie the game that way.  7.5% chance versus a 9% chance they tie with the three - a ha says you - so it's better to foul!  Not so fast, says I. 

  • By fouling, you've extended the game, and so many other things can happen. 
  • Make the first, miss the second, rebound, kick, three - boom, you lost by one. 
  • Miss the first, miss the second, rebound, kick, three - almost happened Friday, but Durant missed. 
  • Try to give the foul, but the other team sniffs it out and goes straight into the shooting motion - behind the arc - three free throws - Or maybe the shot goes in. 
  • Or the old fashioned way - they make both free throws, foul on the inbounds, now there are 4 seconds, you miss one or both free throws, and they Tyus Edney your ass. 

I'm saying, if you play defense, at least 9 times out of 10 they miss a last second shot, the game is over, and you win.  You foul, and there are myriad ways you could conceivably lose, none of them very likely, but at least one of them not significantly less likely than them making a three.

There's another factor here as well - and it's about the spirit of the game.  I'm not above strategically venturing into grey areas if there's a clear advantage - if you can give a foul to prevent an easy basket, you do it every time.  But if you're up three with six seconds to go, shouldn't you be able to play defense for six more seconds and win the game?  And if you can't, do you deserve to?  When Gregg Popovich went to the hack-a-Shaq in the first quarter in last year's playoffs, it was total BS, and there are factors involved that go beyond whether or not it was effective - it wasn't basketball, and the fans want to watch basketball.  So if the percentages were cut and dried, then I would intentionally foul with 6 seconds left.  But given that the percentages are neither cut nor dried, I say play basketball for 6 more seconds.

Of course, you could also foul a three point shooter when you have a four point lead as the Clippers did in Chicago, but I don't recommend that either.

So if it's me, I tell my team to defend the three - every time.  What would you do?  Discuss.