It’s one of the most divisive of question in basketball, right up there with “is David Kahn as bad a GM as Isiah Thomas?”
You’re up three, there’s 10 seconds left in the game and the other team has the ball. Do you foul and send them to the line for two free throws? If so, when? Or, do you show faith in your defense to contest the three and not foul at all, going for it in one play?
There is no consensus, although most observers want the foul. Orlando chose not to foul up three in Game 4 of the 2009 NBA finals, and Derek Fisher got lose (after the Magic double-teamed Kobe) to tie the game with a three. Many coaches will foul, but often not until only a few seconds are left on the clock (Phil Jackson’s stated rule of thumb is under 5 seconds left, although he has let his team play it out and defend the arc on numerous occasions).
But with the odds of making a three roughly 35 percent (give or take, depending on the shooter), and that is just to tie, are you better off defending the arc, contesting the shot and just going for the win?
The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective looked at the data — every college game with this situation last season — and said, to quote Bill Murray in Meatballs, “It just doesn’t matter.” (Hat tip to Deadspin)
In the 2009-2010 season, I found 443 instances where a team held the ball down three points during their last possession of a period (either the end of the 2nd half or an overtime period). In 391 of those cases, the team leading did not foul. In 52 cases, the team chose to foul…
Of the 52 teams that committed a foul, six lost the game for a winning percentage of 88.46%. Of the 391 teams that did not foul, 33 lost the game for a winning percentage of 91.56%. … In this sample, teams that did not foul won slightly more often. For the less statistically inclined, this means that there is no significant difference between the two strategies.
This makes some sense, there is not likely a huge disparity, and the first lesson is you would rather be up three than down three late in a game.
But the Harvard study does not factor in the time component, and that is key. Up three and foul with 10 seconds to go and you have created a free throw shooting contest (the other team will foul the second you inbound). Both sides are likely to get to the line a couple times.
But if you can foul — not in the act of shooting — with Jackson’s five seconds or less? Then you essentially force the other team to make the first and miss the second, trying to get the rebound. In that case, in the Harvard college study, teams won 94 percent of the time. That’s odds any coach would take. So unless you’re at a huge rebounding disadvantage, it seems the wise strategy to foul late.
Or, to put it another way, you can’t really go wrong doing what Phil Jackson does.