Western Conference Finals. Suns vs Clippers. Game 4. The shot clock is off with under 24 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the game, the Suns are in control with a 3 point lead. Prior to the last few years, one would hardly consider a three point lead without possession “in control” of the game. However, over the last few years something has changed. The leading team will intentionally foul their opponents when in these situations (up three, less than 24 seconds on the clock).
The strategy is simple and effective. By fouling up three, you do not let your opponent attempt a three pointer that could risk tying the game. You foul them, so after two made free throws the lead holds as you regain possession, they proceed to foul you, etc… It turns a game of exhilarating NBA basketball into a plodding free throw shooting contest where the trailing team can make all their free throws and still wind up losing if the leading team takes care of their own business (inbounding and free throw shooting).
The strategy took a while to develop, but it is now extremely prevalent, and expected, in the game at both the professional and collegiate level. Leading teams that do not foul and let the trailing team get a shot off, become the target of ridicule of the sports media, fans, and social media alike.
And rightfully so. If you want to win, you better foul. It just works. Back to Saturday night Game 4…
With 13 seconds left and a 79-76 lead, the Suns’ Mikal Bridges gives the foul and sends Paul George to the line for a pair. George hits both, the score gets updated to 79-78 and subs come in the game to prepare for the inbound and next set of free throws. The Suns inbound, the Clippers’ Paul George fouls Chris Paul. Paul, a 93% free throw shooter on the year (the league leader), hits both and now the Clippers are once again down 3, this time not with 13 seconds remaining, but with just 7 seconds left. They’re fighting a losing battle and running out of time if the foul strategy continues. (Hint: it does)
Note: Paul on the year shot 49.9% from the field, 39.5% from three point range and the aforementioned 93% at the line. He missed joining the elite 50/40/90 club by just 0.1% on his field goal shooting and 0.5% on his three point shooting percentages. The Nets’ Kyrie Irving joined the elite club this year becoming the ninth NBA player to shoot those numbers. Notably, Larry Bird did it twice and Steve Nash did it in four separate seasons. Elena Delle Donne was the first and so far only WNBA player to achieve the feat when she did it in the 2019 season.
Now with 6 seconds remaining, Bridges one again fouls Paul George and we’ll do it all again. However, George misses the first shot and now the Clippers look to be in serious trouble down 3. George adjusts and intentionally misses the second, a rare perfect intentional miss off the back iron is corralled by George’s teammate DeMarcus Cousins, and the Suns foul again. Now with just 5 seconds remaining, the Clippers are still 3 points down and head back to the line. Unlike George, Cousins hits the first and now the game is within 2. A make here will ensure the same repeated foul cycle, so Cousins attempts to replicate George’s prefect back rim miss with one of his own. In a shot similar to a baseball pitcher’s quick pitch, Cousins tries to catch the Suns off guard. He takes one slow dribble, replicating a methodical NBA free throw setup, before riffling the ball toward the rim, his shot sails off the top half of the backboard, a violation for not hitting the rim. It didn’t do much to help the Clippers, but it was good for a laugh.
The Clippers now hand the ball back to the Suns. Now down 2 points with just 5 seconds left. The Suns inbound to Chris Paul and the Clippers’ Patrick Beverly gives a quick foul sending Paul back to the line. Paul hits the first, but the league’s leading free throw shooter misses on the second. George rebounds with under 3 seconds, having to travel the length of the floor with no timeouts.
Maybe we’ll get to see a half-court shot attempt from George for the tie. After all, he did beat the buzzer in the third quarter of Game 3 with a half court banker. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The Suns’ Torrey Craig fouls George immediately after corralling the board and George heads back to the line down 3 points.
George connects on the first to make it a 2 point game. With just 3 seconds left on the clock George makes an effort to replicate his previous intentional miss to at least give his team a chance to tie the game with such little time remaining and no time outs to advance the ball, a more conventional use of this intentional miss strategy. George tries to smash the ball off the back of the rim to grab the rebound, but on its way back toward George the ball collides with the inside of the front of the rim blocking it from ricocheting back to the potential grasp of George or one of his teammates.
The Suns’ Dario Šarić grabs the board. George fouls Chris Paul. Paul hits both. The Clippers get the ball back now down 4 with just a second remaining. The game finally ends. Now that’s what I call basketball.
Let’s go back in time a few years to 2016. Truthfully, I am not sure when the “foul up three” strategy first was used, but I imagine it was around 2016. It was certainly was not as widespread back then, but that’s irrelevant to this story…
Villanova and North Carolina are playing in the NCAA National Championship game. A pair of Josh Hart free throws extends the Villanova lead over Carolina to 3 points with just 13 seconds. A game scenario that I suspect would send chills down Paul George’s spine.
Joel Berry receives the inbound pass and quickly advances the ball. Senior guard Marcus Paige runs off a down screen off the wing. Villanova’s senior duo Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu switch on the screen. The pass comes to Paige who is being denied the pass from the much bigger Ochefu. Ochefu lunges to intercept the pass, but the ball somehow trickle through to Paige. Arcidiacono sees Ochefu fall to the ground and quickly reacts, charging toward Paige who’s getting set to pull up into a three point jump shot to potentially tie the game.
Arcidiacono’s close-out forces Paige to contort his body and double clutch to get the shot off. The incredible, soon to be forgettable, shot tickles the twine with just 4.7 seconds left in the game.
Ochefu takes some time to mop his sweat spot, a key spot on the floor where he will set the screen for Arcidiacono who darts up the floor, finds the trailing inbounder Kris Jenkins whose deep buzzer beater three will forever be remembered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest shot in college basketball history.
Let’s re-imagine this ending, shall we? Instead of lunging for the steal, Ochefu fouls Paige with 8 seconds left and Villanova up 3. Paige goes to the line… (see above)
Ultimately, competitive basketball is fun. Intentional fouls and free throws, not as much. At the point where one team does not even get a chance to tie the game because of continuous fouls, the game is no longer competitive and there is less of a chance to see a great ending.
Sure, maybe the foul strategy could come back to bite the leading team. But as we saw on Saturday night, even with Paul George’s perfect intentional missed free throw and Chris Paul’s rare miss at the line, the Clippers never really had a chance to even attempt to tie the game. Teams employ this strategy because it works. But a strategy that works, but also completely obstructs the game is bad for the sport. The end of the game should have been exciting… but it certainly was not.
However, teams will not just stop doing something that works. There needs to be rule changes.
Just look at baseball. The analytics revolution has contributed to longer games, more pitchers per game, more pitches per at-bat, less balls in play, more balls hit into seemingly perfected aligned shifts, more strikeouts, walks and homeruns, the list goes on. Simply put, I think it’s fair to say the game has been less exciting to watch in recent years. It’s on MLB to find the rule changes that can reinvigorate its game.
And it’s on the NBA (and NCAA) to bring back the game tying three. It makes for a more exciting game, and a game that’s played 5-on-5 on the court, not at the foul line.
So what is the solution? For games with less than 24 seconds remaining and where one team leads by 3…
- If the leading team fouls a non-shooter, the offense will inbound from the sideline (no matter the bonus situation)
- If there are between 14-24 seconds on the clock, the clock remains put
- If the defense fouls with under 14 seconds on the clock, the game clock gets reset to 14 seconds
- In the defense fouls a second time, the offense will shoot a one shot technical and retain possession of the ball, inbounding at half court. The same clock mechanics work here, reset the clock to 14, or keep it the same if it’s above 14 seconds remaining
This rule would allow leeway for an unintended late foul, before granting the offensive team with a one shot technical. Resetting the clock also prevents a strategic last second foul while a player is making a move to create space immediately before a shot. The NBA uses the 14 second clock for an offensive rebound, so this makes sense to use that same number for these late game scenarios. Although, for example, going from a foul at the 3 second mark to resetting the clock back to 14 seconds might be extreme. There is some room for debate here.
Just like in baseball, there is a point where effective strategy starts to change the game in a clearly negative way. When this happens it is on the league to alter the rules to maintain the integrity of the sport. That time is now, certainly for MLB, but also for the NBA and NCAA.