LOS ANGELES — It’s a great debate in NBA circles, and it’s one that makes for interesting conversation while breaking down what-if scenarios after the fact.
To foul or not to foul, when leading by three and the other team has possession of the ball in the game’s final seconds?
The Raptors were faced with this dilemma Friday night against the Lakers, leading 109-106 with L.A. inbounding the ball and 8.4 seconds remaining.
Kobe Bryant had just knocked down two extremely difficult looks from three-point distance to even get his team to this point, and Raptors head coach Dwane Casey knew that Bryant would likely be the one to get the ball and attempt to tie the game with one more heroic shot.
Casey’s instructions to his team were clear. The execution, however, left something to be desired.
“We were going to foul,” Casey said afterward. “To answer your question, we were going to foul. We were supposed to foul; we were instructed to foul. Two guys froze — I don’t know what happened, but we were going to foul. That was our game plan at eight seconds, no question about it.”
Bryant weaved his way through the defense to catch the ball, and once he did, Amir Johnson went for the pump fake, which left Bryant open to nail the game-tying shot. Johnson might have tried to reach out and commit the foul after he flew by Bryant, but by then he was too far out of position.
“He made a cut, I tried to foul him, but he made a good play,” Johnson said. “I missed him and he made a tough shot. Especially when we’re up three, we wanted to make him shoot free throws.”
The debate will rage on, but in practice the strategy is a difficult one to pull off. Players have to be cautious not to foul a player as he’s getting into his shooting motion, because a four-point play in that situation would spell disaster.
It was clear in this case that the players and their coach were on the same page in terms of what the plan was. But plans tend to change when one of the game’s best players has the ball in his hands with the game hanging in the balance.