The perils of a poor foul
November, 24, 2010
By Henry Abbott
The D.C. fans had been fairly sleepy most of the night. Jrue Holiday had held John Wall scoreless in the first half as the Sixers built a lead.
But in crunch time, the hometown team had crept closer, and with a vicious flagrant foul on JaVale McGee, Elton Brand had both gotten himself ejected, and ratcheted up the passion throughout the building.
And now, somehow, the Wizards were headed down the court, down just three in the closing seconds with no timeouts. The Wizards are not a great 3-point shooting team -- having made about 34.5 percent of their 3s on the season. But you fight and fight and funny things happen sometimes, right?
Some coaches would instruct the Sixers to foul in that situation, thinking that if you send an opponent to the line for two free throws, while you're up three, you've done a great thing by eliminating their ability to tie the game.
But the strategy is rife with risk and the evidence does not point strongly to either strategy. Sixers coach Doug Collins was vague, post-game, about whether or not he wanted to foul.
Watch the video, and you'll see Andres Nocioni directing Holiday to pick up Wall far from the hoop, and Holiday does. It basically works. Holiday gets Wall to pick up his dribble just over half court. At that moment, the Wizards are essentially dead. There were about four seconds left, and their rookie guard is elevating well out of his shooting range, at running speed, with no obvious teammates to pass to.
Holiday said, after the game, that he was just trying to play defense, and not to foul.
But he had a hand in the cookie jar. Just gently. Hands straight up in the air, there's almost certainly no call. Fouling aggressively, before Wall can gather the ball, there's no shot attempt.
Some time ago, coach Mike Moreau -- formerly of IMG, now director of basketball at Sierra Canyon -- discussed the art of intentionally fouling while holding a three-point lead: "This has to be practiced well before you try to execute it in a game," he explains. "You have to foul a guy on the dribble, before he can gather. That takes practice. And even then, the execution can get screwed up in the heat of the moment."
And here there is an extra challenge, borne of Wall's speed. Let's say Holiday -- from a basketball family -- has practiced fouling, or not fouling, in crunch time. That's entirely possible. But what's not possible is that he has practiced much against someone as fast as Wall.
In any case this time Holiday -- a splendid defender, by and large -- permitted both some contact, and the attempt. Perhaps he didn't trust that Wall wouldn't get past him, and gave himself a little insurance, by adding a hand to the mix. Unlucky for him, giving himself that little edge, thanks to heady play by Wall, gave the Wizards an opportunity to salvage a win.