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Thursday, April 06, 2017
 
The solution to late-game fouling?

No one likes late-game intentional fouling in basketball, because it drags out games and produces boring basketball of constant stoppages and endless free throws. On the other hand, there is no way around the strategy, as it reflects the only way that a trailing defensive team can save time and get the ball back.
But it appears Nick Elam, a middle-school principle and MENSA member from Dayton, has a solution: In the final three minutes of the NBA game (final four in college), turn off the game clock and play until either team reaches a target score, set at +7 from the leading team's score when the clock is turned off. So if Team A leads 99-91 when the clock goes off, the teams play to 106. Elam has been sending his proposal around to basketball types, some of whom purportedly find it interesting, but too radical to implement just yet. But it is going to be used in the early rounds of The Basketball Tournament, a $2-million 64-team tournment featuring teams of former college players. (Elam is interviewed on the tournament podcast).

The proposal does eliminate any incentive to take fouls at the end of the game, because a trailing team can simply play good defense without having to worry about preserving time on the clock. The only fouls we might see are to stop a three-pointer, although that strategy is so time-sensitive (it only works under :04 or so) that it might dissolve on its own. Eliminating the game clock somewhat changes the nature of the game somewhat, which is played in a rhythm of time, but not as much as soccer shoot-outs or college football overtime. And the shot clock remains, so there still is a time element to keep possessions and the game moving.

The proposal may not succeed in shortening games and might lengthen them--not because the clock is stopping constantly, but because teams are not scoring. This will be especially true in close playoff games, where the defense ratchets up in the final minutes. For example, at the 3:00 mark of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, the score was 89-89, meaning the game would have been played to 96. The final score was 93-89, and one of those points came on a made free throw off an intentional foul with :10 left. The defense was that good and the players were that tired (this included LeBron James's block of a fast-break layup).

On the other hand, perhaps offenses would be freer to look for the best shot at anytime, no longer worried about any time considerations. Teams now get as many possessions as it takes to score the requisite points, so they need not save or waste time. Back to Game 7: After Cleveland's Kyrie Irving hit a go-ahead 3 with :53 left, Golden State used almost the entire shot clock to get Steph Curry isolated on a weak defender, who forced Curry to miss a three-pointer. But Golden State does not need a three in that situation; it can get a better two-point shot, knowing that, if it plays good defense, it will have a greater number of possessions and opportunities to score.





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