In the final seconds of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, in which the San Antonio Spurs beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 120-111 to take a 2-0 series lead, TNT analysts Reggie Miller and Steve Kerr were discussing what the Thunder needed to do differently beginning with Game 3 in order to have a chance in the series. Kerr's primary suggestions (play smaller, get their best players on the floor, switch everything on defense) were relatively sound. Then this exchange occurred:
Miller: Is [the Hack-a-Splitter] a part of the scheme as well?
Kerr: Sure. I mean, it worked tonight. Why not?
It worked? Really? What game were they watching?
For background, late in the third quarter of Game 2, coach Scott Brooks had his team begin intentionally fouling Spurs power forward Tiago Splitter. There's a certain poetic justice to the strategy, given that San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich is arguably the foremost practitioner in all the NBA of the "Hack-a-[your bad foul shooter's name here]" gambit, but let's be clear -- it did not work.
When the Thunder began fouling with two and a half minutes remaining in the third, the Spurs were ahead by 16 points. For the next five possessions, the Thunder intentionally fouled Splitter, who made five of his 10 free throws. At the end of those five possessions, the Spurs led by 16. At the end of the third quarter, the Spurs led by 16. One might have thought that in order for a strategy to be deemed a success, it might actually need to produce some measurable benefit on the court, perhaps reduce the deficit some -- but evidently not.
Now, the TNT crew and others would argue that the strategy disrupted the flow of the game and got San Antonio out of a seemingly unstoppable offensive rhythm. There would certainly be value in that outcome, but there are just two problems with the reasoning.
- It may smack of a purist attitude, but surely intentionally fouling solely for the sake of interrupting the flow of the game is wrongheaded on every level. Should it not be the goal of the Thunder's defense to interrupt the offensive flow of the Spurs? If the only way to disrupt your opposition is to completely circumvent the spirit of the game, is that not essentially an admission of defeat? "We can't beat you."
- The Spurs had been in a terrific groove in the third quarter, that much is true. At one point they went on a 25-12 run to build a 22-point lead. But on closer inspection, in about two minutes of game time directly prior to implementing the hackfest, Oklahoma City ran off eight straight of their, forcing three straight turnovers -- by actually playing defense of all things. A team's offense ebbs and flows throughout a game, and in fact the Spurs had already skipped out of their unstoppable groove by the time Brooks started fouling. The Thunder had a real chance to put a series of stops together at the end of the third quarter, as in fact they had started to do -- instead, they handed the Spurs five free points.
The biggest problem with intentionally fouling a poor foul shooter on your opponent is that the foul shooter is almost never actually poor enough to make it pay off: it is statistical loser based solely on the math. Making fewer than 60 percent of your free throws in the NBA is truly terrible, and there were only 28 players in the league this season who shot that poorly on at least 40 attempts. But in order for the hack strategy to begin making statistical sense, the target of your fouls has to be around 50 percent or worse -- and there are only about 10 of those guys.
League-wide, the average number of points scored per possession this season was 1.046. A player who shoots .523 from the foul line would have an expected value of 1.046 points on a pair of free throws, so statistically, .523 percent would be the break even point. Splitter shot .691 from the line on the regular season, and .626 for his NBA career. True, he was .320 (8-25) in the playoffs going into Game 2, and was 1-5 in Game 1, including one terribly ugly miss. But basing a strategic decision on the minuscule data sample of his last 25 free throws or worse yet his last five smacks of the worst kind of hunch-playing, or possibly simple desperation. At .691 or even .626, Splitter's expected value of points in 10 free throws would be much better than what one would expect the Spurs offense to score in five possessions against a good defense. In the end, Brooks was lucky to get away with giving up only five points on those five trips, but it still wasn't what his team needed if they expected to come back.
The most effective way to overcome a big deficit in the NBA is to dig in on defense and get some stops. Especially if you can force some turnovers, those can lead to quick points in transition on the other end, which can quickly cut into a deficit. In the playoffs this season alone, we've seen the Clippers overcome a 27-point deficit against the Grizzlies and the Spurs overcome a 24-point deficit against the Clippers, and they did it without resorting to a hack strategy (mostly without, in the case of the Spurs). The irony is that the Thunder had actually started to play some decent defense, and had forced three turnovers that led to easy scores on the other end, before they started fouling. When you put your opponent on the line, you can pretty much guarantee that you won't be getting an easy transition score, even on a miss.
It's disturbing how frequently this strategy is now being employed. But here's the real question: does it ever actually work? Obviously, a team that is trailing in the final seconds of a game is going to foul the poorest free throw shooter they can find and hope for the best, and that will on occasion produce a win. But when there's still plenty of time to mount a comeback the old-fashioned way, by digging in on defense and shutting down your opponent, does it ever work to start intentionally fouling instead? Does the team that was behind actually win the game aided by the hack strategy?
Hopefully coaches will realize that it's a statistical loser and stop doing it for the sake of the watchability of games. The last couple of minutes of the third quarter Tuesday night in San Antonio probably took about 30 minutes, but it felt like it took two hours. If the coaches don't wise up and go away from the strategy on their own, the NBA will have to consider implementing new rules to discourage it. The NBA is the only basketball league in the world that suffers from this problem -- it doesn't happen in international basketball nor in college basketball, because the rules are different governing intentional fouls which do not involve a play on the ball -- so it's clearly a problem that can be solved. At some point the league may have to save coaches from themselves to keep them from employing a strategy that ruins the enjoyment of the game while simultaneously decreasing their team's chances of winning.