Late in the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder engaged in a controversial strategy of "Hack-A-Splitter," intentionally fouling San Antonio Spurs forward Tiago Splitter on five straight possessions.
The Thunder began using the strategy when they were trailing 82-66 with a little more than 2:30 left in the quarter, at a time when the Spurs offense was really clicking (27 points in the quarter to that point).
Using this strategy brings up the question of whether it’s actually a good strategic decision for the Thunder to employ in this series. Let's look at it two ways:
How Did It Work in Game 2?
Through the 2:32 mark of the third quarter, the Spurs had scored 82 points on 61 possessions, or an incredibly efficient 1.34 points per possession.
From the 2:31 mark of the third quarter to the 1:34 mark (when Splitter left the game), the Thunder intentionally fouled Splitter on five straight Spurs possessions. Splitter went 5-for-10 from the line and Ginobili hit one technical free throw for a total of six points on those five possessions (1.20 points per possession).
If you look at it this way, "Hack-A-Splitter" was marginally successful in slowing down the Spurs offense, dropping their productivity in terms of points per possession. But most of this was because the Spurs offense was playing at an incredibly high level earlier in the game. And, Oklahoma City wasn't really able to make too much out of it. When the intentional fouling finished, the Thunder still trailed by 16 points -- the same deficit they had beforehand..
How Would It Work Going Forward?
In five regular and postseason meetings against the Thunder this year, the Spurs have averaged 1.09 points per possession. They led the NBA during the regular season with an average of 1.08 points per possession, and lead the league in the playoffs with an average of 1.10. So, we can expect the Spurs to average about 1.09 points per possession against the Thunder.
Splitter was a 69 percent free-throw shooter (125-181) during regular season, which is not low enough to justify intentionally fouling. But, before the Thunder began fouling Splitter, he was 9-for-27 on free throws in the playoffs. Averaging his regular season and playoff free throw numbers together, assume Splitter is likely to make 51.2 percent of his free throws going forward.
The expected value of "Hack-A-Splitter" is not just based on Splitter making or missing free throws, though, because there is the possibility of an offensive rebound on a missed second free throw.
Assuming the average offensive rebound percent of 14 off a missed free throw, and the Spurs’ average offensive efficiency if they do get an offensive rebound, here's how Hack-A-Splitter would break down:
Results of Spurs Possessions Under "Hack-A-Splitter" Strategy
Combining all this together, you get 1.10 points per possession for the Hack-A-Splitter strategy, slightly more than the Spurs' expected average offensive efficiency against the Thunder.
Looking at it this way, "Hack-A-Splitter" would not work, as it does not reduce the Spurs' offensive efficiency if you assume Splitter makes a little more than half of his free throws. This is before taking into account other consequences of intentionally fouling that might hurt the Thunder in other ways, including:
• Getting their own players in foul trouble
• Getting the Spurs into the bonus earlier
• Preventing their own transition opportunities
"Hack-A-Splitter" may have appeared to work in Game 2, but it shouldn't be seen as a viable strategy for the Thunder going forward.