To Foul or not to Foul ?
Foul, or risk buzzer-beater?
Perhaps the most debated strategy in the NBA is what to do when you're leading by three points in the waning seconds of a game: Foul and make it a free-throw-shooting contest or risk yielding a tying three? Most NBA coaches will have their teams play defense and risk the tie.
"One thing coaches always are worried about is taking a foul and getting caught with a shot and giving three free throws or a four-point play," said former NBA coach Doug Collins.
The most famous example came in the 1999 Eastern Conference finals when Antonio Davis, with his Pacers up by three, tried to foul the Knicks' Larry Johnson as he caught the ball. Instead, the officials allowed Johnson's continuation and the four-point play beat the Pacers.
Percentages suggest a foul, especially late. Then the team trailing has to sink the first, purposely miss, get the rebound and score.
"If you're up three, the only way to lose is foul," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. "They make the first, then miss the second, it's a crazy bounce back for a three, though the odds are not great. There's a paranoia that somehow a veteran will trick the ref and get three shots. Coaches always remember the worst."
There are many variables, most notably the time. With more than 10 seconds left, coaches fear getting into a free-throw contest to extend the game. Longtime NBA coach Don Nelson usually had good free-throw-shooting teams and was known for fouling. A protege, the Spurs' Gregg Popovich, also usually fouls. No situation is more second-guessed. Here are several examples from this season:
Nov. 1: Bucks at 76ers -- Philadelphia coach Maurice Cheeks doesn't foul. With about 10 seconds left, the Bucks were trailing by three. The 76ers allowed T.J. Ford to drive the lane, then go across the baseline, dribble back into the lane, out to the free-throw line and then in again, finding Michael Redd with seconds left. Redd's three tied the score, and the Bucks won in overtime.
Nov. 13: Sonics at Raptors -- Seattle coach Bob Weiss goes with the foul, leading by three with 4.2 seconds left. "The way they were shooting the three, I didn't want to see them take one," Weiss said. "So what I told the players is, `If they dribble, you foul him.'" Ray Allen fouled Toronto's Mike James on the throw-in. James made the first and intentionally missed the second, and the rebound went to Charlie Villanueva, who put up a shot short that was laid in at the buzzer by Chris Bosh. The Sonics, though, went on to win in overtime.
Wednesday: Bucks at Warriors -- Milwaukee coach Terry Stotts decides not to foul. The Bucks had seen a 15-point fourth-quarter lead fade to three with five seconds left. Golden State, a good three-point-shooting team, had the ball. It was inbounded, swung to the corner and then on top to Baron Davis for a wide-open three. He missed, so the Bucks held on.
Friday: Magic at Cavaliers -- Orlando coach Brian Hill doesn't foul, up by three with 18 seconds left. Cleveland inbounded to Larry Hughes, who dribbled twice, then passed to Donyell Marshall, who went around a screen and tied the score on a three. The Magic missed a potential winner at the buzzer. "The guy made a tough shot," Hill said. The Cavs went on to win in overtime. "That's a heartbreaker," DeShawn Stevenson said. "Donyell [is] a good shooter. But that was one in a million." Well, not quite.
Sunday: Bulls at Lakers -- The Bulls are ahead by three with 11 seconds left. They allowed the Lakers to shoot. Kobe Bryant missed from 25 feet with two seconds to go, and Lamar Odom missed at the buzzer. So the Bulls hung on to win.