Does being in foul trouble really merit a substitution?

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Among the most sacred truisms in basketball is the concept of “foul trouble”; head coaches yank players out of the game without compromise and regardless of import due to the number of fouls the player has acquired relative to how much time is left in the game. Two fouls in the first quarter? Benched. Three in the first half? Benched. The very notion that a pivotal player could receive four fouls in a half of basketball is apparently so threatening to head coaches, that they simply refuse to even allow it as a possibility.

If only that strategy made the slightest bit of sense. Dr. Jonathan Weinstein of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, writing at The Leisure of the Theory Class, explains (via Jason Kottke):

Conventional wisdom seems to regard foul management as a risk vs. safety
decision.  You will constantly hear something like, “a big decision
here, whether to risk putting Duncan back in with 4 fouls.”  This is
completely the wrong lens for the problem, since the “risky”* strategy
is, with the caveats mentioned, all upside!  Coaches dramatically
underrate the “risk” of falling behind, or losing a lead, by sitting a
star for too long.  To make it as stark as possible, observe that the
coach is voluntarily imposing the penalty that he is trying to avoid,
namely his player being taken out of the game!

The most egregious
cases are when a player sits even though his team is significantly
behind.  I almost feel as though the coach prefers the certainty of
losing to the “risk” of the player fouling out.  There may be a
“control fallacy” here: it just feels worse for the coach to have a
player disqualified than to voluntarily bench him, even if the result
is the same.  Also, there is a bit of an agency/perception problem: the
coach is trying to maximize keeping his job as well as winning, which
makes him lean towards orthodoxy.

To put it a different way, the worst thing that could possibly happen by keeping a player in “foul trouble” in the game is that they could get their sixth foul, which would limit the amount of time they can spend on the floor. So in order to avoid that outcome, coaches…limit the amount of time the player can spend on the floor. It’s safe to say that in-game context can make things slightly more complicated, but on a basic level, it makes little sense to sit a player for any reason other than ineffectiveness or rest.

At the heart of this discussion is essentially a debate over whether or not fourth quarter minutes matter more than minutes played during the rest of the game. After all, that’s essentially what coaches fear in such a scenario: if a player picks up his sixth foul too early, he may miss playing time in the fourth quarter.

From where I’m sitting, the points all count the same. A first quarter run can demoralize an opponent, a second quarter run can protect a lead when it’s in danger, and a third quarter run can put the game out of reach for an opponent (see Celtics vs. Cavs, Game 5). The only thing the fourth quarter really has going for it is its finality, as teams can put up points without the clock allowing time for the opponent to bounce back.

Does that really make fourth quarter production that much more valuable? Hardly. It’s just different. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool to have a very efficient fourth quarter scorer. It’s just not all that much cooler than having a very efficient first or second quarter scorer. The biggest factor seems to be the reputation that comes with fourth quarter scoring.

The significance of clutch scoring is rather obvious, but the affinity for player success in the entire fourth quarter likely has more to do with the common casual sports fan assertion that NBA games “aren’t interesting until the fourth quarter,” or that players “don’t really try until the fourth quarter” more than anything else. Considering how ridiculous both of those claims are, what criteria exist that could possibly elevate the importance of fourth quarter minutes? 

Three Things to Watch in Hawks/Cavaliers Game 2: Atlanta needs more Kyle Korver

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 2: Kyle Korver #26 of the Atlanta Hawks drives around LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals at Quicken Loans Arena on May 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Hawks 104-93. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Cavaliers held serve in Game 1 thanks to some late game LeBron James heroics, but they blew a big lead and the Hawks didn’t make it easy. What did we see in Game 1 we should keep and eye on in Game 2? Here are three questions that will get answers this game:

1) Can Atlanta get Kyle Korver open for some shots? Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d type: J.R. Smith did a fantastic defensive job shutting down Kyle Korver. He had plenty of help, for example, they switched pick-and-rolls which sometimes meant LeBron was on him. However, the idea didn’t change — the Cavaliers made shutting down Kover a top priority. One of the best three-point shooters in the game and a master at quietly finding space, Korver had just one attempt from beyond the arc in Game 1 (a miss from the top of the key). They need his spacing to make their offense flow.

For Atlanta, if Korver is getting that much attention other Hawks to hit their threes — Atlanta took 34 but hit just 11 (32.4 percent) in Game 1. The Hawks entire offense is to score at the rim and from three, and if one of those isn’t clicking they are in trouble. The Hawks moved the ball well and got some clean looks from three, but missed them. Those need to fall to win Game 2.

2) How quickly will Hawks go to Kent Bazemore on Kevin Love, meaning Paul Millsap/Thabo Sefolosha on LeBron James? Atlanta started Game 2 with Bazemore on LeBron, and the Cavaliers quickly tried to exploit that in the post — LeBron is too big and too strong and will get the shots he wants (the Hawks don’t have a great one-on-one option to go against LeBron). Mike Budenholzer made a smart switch putting Bazemore on Love, who prefers to live on the perimeter, and let Millsap handle LeBron. Millsap is a quality defender, and LeBron doesn’t take guys off the dribble like he used to, this matchup worked for a while, expect the Hawks to go to it quickly in Game 2.

The converse of that matchup question is can the Cavaliers keep Al Horford and Paul Millsap in check again? The All-Star front line of the Atlanta Hawks was 10-of-32 shooting and were not the forces the Hawks need on that end of the floor, the Hawks need better efficiency from their starting bigs.

3) Can the combo of Dennis Schroder and Jeff Teague balance out Kyrie Irving? If there was an unexpected star of Game 1, it was Schroder, the German bench point guard of the Hawks who supplanted Jeff Teague for key minutes late in the game. Schroder — Boston fans’ favorite villain in the first round (he was booed every time he touched the ball after some run-ins with Isaiah Thomas) — had 27 points and six assists in Game 1. The problem for the Hawks is Schroder is just not that consistent, he hit 5-of-10 from three in Game 1 and it’s unlikely he’s going to replicate that effort in Game 2. Look for Budenholzer to play Teague and Schroder together for stretches in this team and see if the combo can unlock the Atlanta offense.

The Hawks need a lot from their guards because we know Irving will have a good game. Irving had 21 points and eight assists in Game 1, plus a key block on Schroder late, and it feels like he can do much better. The combination of Teague and Schroder need to keep him in check to keep the Hawks within striking distance.

Watch Dwyane Wade’s game sealing steal, lay-up in overtime

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Of course it was Dwyane Wade.

He can summon up the athletic, play-making younger version of himself for a game here or a stretch there, and he did that again in Game 1 against the Raptors Tuesday. He had 24 points on the night, and along with Goran Dragic helped lead the Heat to a road win to start the series.

That includes making the steal on DeMar DeRozan and getting the bucket that sealed the win. Wade was determined in this one.

Warriors’ defense, Klay Thompson take over fourth quarter, earn Game 2 win

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Only one team in this series can crank up their defense enough to  win them games.

The Warriors’ offense feeds off that stingy defense — with or without Stephen Curry in the lineup, again Tuesday it was without — and the combination can lead to big runs.

Such as a 34-12 fourth quarter. It was historic, as our own Dan Feldman pointed out on twitter.

Golden State trailed by 17 at one point but came on in the fourth with a defensive energy that held Damian Lillard to 0-of-3 shooting and his entire Portland team to 26.5 percent shooting. Those miss shots fueled transition buckets and opportunities — Klay Thompson had 10 of his 27 points on the night in the fourth — and the Warriors roared back for a 110-99 victory.

Golden State now leads the series 2-0 as it heads to Portland, with Game 3 not until Saturday. The biggest question is whether Curry will play in that game, or will the Warriors use their position of strength to get him more rest (as they did in the Houston series up 2-0)?

The best player on the floor in Game 2 was Draymond Green, who finished with 17 points (on 20 shots), 14 rebound and seven assists. But that’s not where the damage he does starts — it’s on defense. His ability to defend the five, then show out high on pick-and-rolls to cut off Lillard or C.J. McCollum and take away their shots from three. With Curry out, Green also spends a lot of time as the guy initiating the Warriors offense. He crashes the boards. He protects the paint, including a key block late on Mason Plumlee. Green did it all.

Portland raced out to a lead using their vintage style — their defense wasn’t that good, but it was good enough (especially with a cold Thompson who kept missing open looks), and their offense was hitting everything. With the Warriors missing shots it was Portland using the opportunity to run — and it was the Warriors defenders doing a poor job of recognizing the shooters and closing them out. So the opposite of Game 1.

Portland was also getting buckets from Al-Farouq Aminu — 10 first quarter points — and that’s always a good sign because he’s the guy (well, him and Maurice Harkless) that the Warriors will live with shooting.

Still, you knew the run was coming. The Warriors went on a 14-2 run to make it close as the second half started to wind down. But then Portland responded with some real poise and an 8-0 run of their own. Portland was getting their buckets and had a 59-51 run at the half. They continued to hold that lead through the third quarter thanks to a red-hot Damian Lillard, who had 16 points in the quarter.

But again, you knew the run was coming — and this time it was fueled by the Warriors defense. Festus Ezeli was a big part of that, his defensive presence in the paint helped turn things around, he was setting big screens to free up Thompson and others, plus he had eight points of his own in the quarter.

When the game got tight Portland missed seven in a row down the stretch, and that sealed the Blazers fate. Meanwhile, the Warriors kept hitting shots, and the Blazers have no great options to change up the defense and alter that dynamic. Even without Curry, the versatility of the Warriors makes them tough to slow, let alone stop. 

Going home, maybe the Trial Blazers can hit some difficult shots and hold off a Warriors charge in the fourth quarter.

Or, maybe Stephen Curry is back, and the Warriors just get better.

Dwyane Wade’s determination outlasts Kyle Lowry’s buzzer beater

Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade controls the ball as Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry (7) defends during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Tuesday, May 3, 2016 in Toronto.  (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Dwyane Wade was helpless as Kyle Lowry‘s halfcourt heave sailed through the air (though Wade cocked his head back and leaned to the side, as if changing his view could alter the ball’s trajectory).

Wade was helpless as the referees swallowed their whistles despite Cory Joseph crashing into him on an inbound. (Haven’t we had enough incorrect no-calls on late inbound plays?) That led to a Heat turnover that preceded Lowry’s miracle shot.

Wade was helpless as the referees again swallowed their whistles despite DeMarre Carroll tugging his jersey on an overtime inbound. (Haven’t we really had enough incorrect no-calls on late inbound plays?) That also created a turnover and gave the Raptors another chance to tie.

So, Wade took matters into his own hands.

Wade snatched the ball from DeMar DeRozan, went to his knees to recover it and charged for a three-point play with 1.8 seconds left – finally clinching a 102-96 Miami Game 1 win in a second-round series Tuesday.

The game went to overtime on Lowry’s long-distance buzzer beater. When the shot fell, Wade dropped to one knee and buried his face in his hand. But he didn’t stay on the mat for long.

The Heat scored first eight points of regulation, and Wade (24 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks) outscored the Raptors himself in the extra period, 7-6.

This is Toronto’s seventh straight Game 1 loss, including four at home the last three years with largely this group of players. But as the Raptors’ first-round win over the Pacers showed, this series is far from over. Road Game 1 winners have taken the series 53% of the time, hardly an overwhelming clip.

Toronto must better stay in front of Goran Dragic, who led Miami with 26 points. Dragic, who had 25 in Game 7 against the Hornets, had never scored so much in consecutive games with the Heat. They’re thrilled to run their offense through him more often.

The Raptors should also more resolutely attack Hassan Whiteside, who scared them away from the basket. Beyond Jonas Valanciunas (24 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals), the Raptors were 8-for-20 in the paint with Whiteside in the game. It’s not so much the shooting percentage – which isn’t great – but the low number of attempts in 39 minutes. Whiteside is a premier rim protector, but he’s not invincible. That proclivity for the perimeter failed especially with Toronto’s star guard struggling so mightily.

Aside from his halfcourt highlight, Lowry scored four points on 2-of-12 shooting, including 0-for-6 from beyond the arc. More than anything, the Raptors need him to play better.

Otherwise, the shot of the playoffs will only delay the inevitable.