Lost in some of the hullabaloo surrounding the incredibly exciting final three minutes of Saturday's Game 3 win in Utah was how the Lakers handled one of basketball's great tactical quandaries: Up by three and in the penalty with only a few seconds left in the game, is it best to intentionally foul a shooter and put him on the line before a potential game tying shot can be launched?
Or do you play it straight, and ask your team to make a single defensive stand to win the game, potentially allowing a better look but shortening the game and leaving no (likely) outcome worse than overtime.
Phil Jackson generally won't choose to foul, but on Saturday he did. It worked out in the end- the Lakers won the game- but tactically could have backfired. Derek Fisher sent Williams to the line with six seconds to play. Williams made both his shots, and the Lakers called timeout to advance the ball. On the inbound, however, Ron Artest couldn't hit Fish with the inbound pass (in part because of a great open field tackle by Wes Matthews), giving Utah the ball back with a chance to win.
They didn't, of course, but had either Williams' jumper or Matthews' buzzer-beating tip dropped, there would have been plenty of Sunday morning quarterbacking around town.
Everyone has his own philosophy on how to handle this sort of situation, but to get a better feel for it I talked to a former NBA head coach to get see what he would have done.
"Eight seconds or less left, I think you foul," he said. "If you're a terrible free throw shooting team, maybe it's different." Given the guys likely to get the ball on the inbound- Fish or Kobe Bryant, he didn't think the Lakers qualified as a bad FT bunch. He doesn't want to see overtime. "I think it saves you the trauma," he said. "Invariably, you probably lose the game [in OT] because you've lost your juice."
Even if your team only makes one of two at the other end, the hope is you can survive the opposition's last chance because a short clock forces the other team into a very tough look. The flip side, of course, is now you can actually lose the game, the big counterargument to fouling in the first place.
The coaching fraternity, he said, is pretty evenly split on the issue, and it's easy to see why.
I'm not entirely sure there's a hard-and-fast right answer. My inclination is eight seconds seems like a little too much time. Fish couldn't risk letting any more than a couple ticks drain off, because otherwise the danger of fouling Williams in the act of shooting becomes very real. I'd just as soon give the opposition one chance to, at worst, tie the game. Had the Jazz inbounded with three or four seconds remaining, then I think it's a good play.
So many other things were in play there, he told me. Inbounding with a little over eight seconds left, Utah was right on the cusp of having the flexibility to go for a tying three or a very quick drive-and-finish two (a shot almost always available, since the defense is rightly concerned about fouling a shooter inside in that situation) and then fouling. There's also the question of whether you can rely on your players to execute the foul properly. Or even remember to foul at all.
"You grab guys and tell them," he said, "but they don't always do it... It happens more often than you'd think." Sometimes it's brain lock on the part of the player, sometimes he just thinks he's smarter than the coach and freelances, sometimes he wants to do it, but circumstances (where the ball ends up on the floor, for example) make the player gun shy. But however you slice it, the coach's direction doesn't always play out on the floor.
Again, he said, it's where having a veteran group like the Lakers makes a difference. They're less likely to screw up the intentional foul.
A couple more interesting notes from our conversation:
-He pointed out how important angles are when trying to get the ball back in bounds and avoid the turnover. In the Lakers' case, Fisher was forced to receive the pass moving towards the baseline instead of straight-on. Once a player is led by a pass in either direction, a lot can go wrong. Looking at the replay, Fish did try to give Artest a chest-to-chest angle to make the pass, but either Artest couldn't get it in around the sideline defender (Kyle Korver, I believe) or was late with the pass. Fish turned baseline, and the rest (could have been) history.
-On the broadcast, I'm pretty sure the idea of Williams missing the second of his free throws intentionally was mentioned. The coach thought it was a bad idea. "It never works," he said. "It's not something you practice enough to become adept at it." It's a true measure of last resort in his mind.
-Williams received criticism in some circles after "settling" for a jumper. Not fair, said the coach. "I thought it was the best shot," he said. "And they also had the wide open tip from Matthews, so they really had two good opportunities."
Fun stuff to debate, particularly after the fact.