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Up Three in the Closing Seconds -- To Foul or Not?

The Clippers actually won a game, which is worth noting in and of itself.

Even more exciting, it was a buzzer beater. Give the Clippers credit. With the final horn looming, they moved the ball -- an Eric Gordon drive, a kick out to Baron Davis, and a dish to Steve Novak for the game-winner from the corner. Once Gordon drove, the Nets' defense was set up for what NBA teams do most often with the game on the line -- stop playing team basketball. They had the lane all clogged, which would have looked smart if Gordon had shot the ball.

Even more interesting is that the Clippers were in position to win thanks to a fluky series of events, kicked off by a bold coaching call from Lawrence Frank.

John Hollinger (Insider) writes:

What made the game so interesting was that it was a rare situation when a coach called for a foul when he was up by three points in the final seconds ... yet lost anyway. Lawrence Frank had the Nets foul Baron Davis with seven seconds left and the Nets up three, a move that I love, especially because Davis struggles from the line. Unfortunately, it backfired when Davis made both free throws and Jarvis Hayes then missed a pair for the Nets, setting up Novak's heroics at the end.

Of course, the last time I saw the Clippers in this situation, the coach took the opposite strategy and still lost -- Portland coach Nate McMillan opted not to foul, Davis made a game-tying 3-pointer and the Blazers lost in overtime.

There's some chance that either approach will fail, and we should judge coaches based on the probability of the path they chose rather than the result. I still maintain that in most situations a team is better off fouling when up three in the final seconds, and this one negative result doesn't change my opinion.

This is obviously a very unusual bad break -- two made free throws vs. two misses. And I suspect Hollinger is right that fouling here makes sense. But what I have never seen is a measure of the cost of stopping the clock. If you have a lead with seven seconds left, the mere passage of time is great strategy. By fouling, yes you essentially take a 3-point play off the table. But you also shoo away Father Time, who is at the door wanting to hand you a victory.

In this weird instance, the cost was mighty.