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Does Hacking Really Work?

Last night, Greg Popovich sent DeAndre Jordan to the line 28 times in an attempt to get his team back in the game. It didn't work out so well.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

There's 7:11 left in the game, and the Spurs are down 3, 100-97.  Greg Popovich decides it's time  for a new strategy: foul DeAndre Jordan.

The thought behind 'hack-a-Shaq' is simple: you make a guy like DeAndre shoot a ton of free throws, because he's not an efficient shooter.  A guy like DJ, who shoots 42% for his career from the line, is only going give the Clippers .84 points per possession if he's shooting two free throws every time.  That's a rate that the Spurs like, and the strategy has the added benefit of shortening the Clippers' time of possession, almost doubling the amount of chances the Spurs will get to score in a given stretch.

For reference, the Clippers had approximately 101 possessions in the game that did not end with Jordan free throws (77 shots taken + 12 turnovers makes for 89 certain possessions, the 24 non-Jordan foul shots included some and-ones, but for the sake of this exercise it's not that important).  On those 101 non-Jordan FT possessions, the Clippers scored 109 non-Jordan FT points.

That's just slightly over 1 point per possession (even if and-ones mean that there were 103 or 105 possessions it's just over 1).  So, yeah, it makes sense.  The Spurs' best statistical, point-per-possession defensive strategy is to let Jordan shoot free throws all day long.  This option only allows the Clippers to score 84% of the points they would have gotten otherwise.  On nights like last night, Jordan shot below his normal average from the line, scoring only about 0.71 points per possession.  Even better for the Spurs, right?

Well, maybe not.  During the stretch in the fourth quarter that the Spurs fouled Jordan (from 7:11 when ESPN's play-by-play lists the Spurs' first "take foul"--note: memory tells me the prior foul at 8:14 was intentional as well, but ESPN doesn't list it as such--to 4:26, when Doc Rivers took Jordan out of the game for Barnes), the result wasn't in the Spurs' favor: the Clippers outscored San Antonio by 1 during that three minute stretch.

In that time, the Spurs sent Jordan to the line 6 times, and he wilted, going 4-12 (only 0.66 points per possession).

That created a perfect chance for the Spurs to capitalize, only they didn't.  It's not secret that basketball players are more likely to score in transition when they can get layups and open shots, and by giving the other team free throws repeatedly, you eliminate your chances to get runouts.  Here's what the play-by-play has for the Spurs:

Tim Duncan makes 17-foot jumper

Tony Parker misses jumper

Tony Parker makes driving layup

Danny Green misses three point jumper

Marco Belinelli misses 22-foot jumper

Tony Parker misses 20-foot jumper

Marco Belinelli misses 27-foot three point jumper

Over that stretch, the Spurs scored 4 points on 7 possessions.  That's only 0.57 points per possession, which is abysmal.  Small sample size alert: it's hard to draw long-term conclusions from a single game, because individual results are random.  With something this small, it's only worthwhile for examining in-game coaching adjustments for this game, not projecting future strategy.

When I watched hack-a-DJ, I was incredibly bored.  I live in New York.  It was after 1 AM.  My girlfriend wanted me to go to bed.  I had a mid-term in the morning.  It sucked.  But I'll be damned if it didn't help the Clippers beat the Spurs.  DeAndre Jordan is not the player he was in the past.  Last night, he more than made up for his free throw shooting woes by dominating defensively and on the glass.  And, if I was Doc Rivers, I would not have pulled him from the game with 4:26 left.  Who cares if both teams are producing horrible offense--the Clippers' horrible offense was still more efficient than the Spurs'.

Once Jordan checked out of the game, the Spurs started finding an offensive rhythm.  They scored twice on four possessions in between 4:26 and 2:15 (when Jordan came back in, because you can't intentionally foul off the ball with under 2 minutes left), and then even when DJ checked back into the game, the momentum continued, as the Spurs rattled off 7 points in under 90 seconds.

The Spurs are the defending NBA champions.  The Clippers are a good team playing without their second best offensive player.  Why do they have to try to resort to these types of tricks?  This isn't the Knicks or Lakers we're talking about here.  Those teams might have to play little games to get an edge, but the Spurs are pretty damn good at basketball.  They win by just playing basketball all the time.  And they might have even won by just playing basketball last night if Pop hadn't wasted 3 of the last 7 minutes of the game with a silly strategy that lost his team a point.

Hacking, as has been discussed, does more than just force the hacked team into inefficient offense due to low FT percentages, it also messes up the whole flow of a game for both offenses.  The Spurs were doing fine.  It wasn't like they were down 15 and needed to play with desperation tactics.  Greg Popovich, by trying to be cute and genius with his coaching strategy instead of just playing basketball (just like he did by taking Duncan out on defense in game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, which led to a Miami offensive rebound and three pointer) hurt his team.

This has nothing to do with the fact that it's a mockery to the game and a horrible rule that should be changed; this is common sense.  Hacking Jordan, and all the unintended consequences of that strategy, hurt the Spurs in the long run, and helped the Clippers cling to their lead in the closing minutes.