Game after game, Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale has had to sit back and watch teams use intentional fouls to their advantage.
Against the New York Knicks on Thursday night, he turned the tables.
After dealing with the “Hack-A-Howard” once again, the Rockets were lucky enough to hold on to a three-point lead with five seconds left, thanks in large part to Carmelo Anthony’s mistake of intentionally fouling Howard under two minutes.
Despite the painful error, Anthony was all set to have a chance to tie the game with five seconds left. All he had to do was hit a three.
But as soon as Anthony received the ball and his chance for redemption, James Harden shoved him. Then he swiped at him. Then he swiped at him again.
The whistle blew, and Anthony flung up a desperate heave. Splash. Good.
Visions of Larry Johnson danced in Knicks’ fans heads, but it wasn’t to be. The foul was on the ground, and now Anthony was charged with a much more difficult task of turning two free throws into three points.
Coaches typically don’t tell their players to foul in that situation. According to a study that spanned from 2005-2008, teams decided to foul just 27 times out of a possible 287 chances when up three with less than 10 seconds on the clock.
According to that same study, teams that didn’t foul won 91.9 percent of the games. Teams that did foul? 88.9 percent. While it seems like fouling gives a team a clear advantage in that situation, it also opens the door for a lot of wackiness, which we very nearly witnessed in New York.
Still, it’s important to remember that each situation is unique. Going up against a player like Anthony in that situation, who can get his shot off over anyone, is a little scarier than, say, defending anyone from the Memphis Grizzlies in a similar spot.
The time and timeout situation matters as well. The less time on the clock, the less chances that there will be possessions added on to the game. If a team is without timeouts, the inability to advance the ball on a future possession is a huge bonus.
Aside from Harden playing patty-cake instead of wrapping Anthony up, it was perfect execution. Anthony caught the ball with his back to the basket, which should trigger a foul in that situation every time, and the Knicks had no timeouts remaining and no ferocious offensive rebounders to create problems on the box out for Houston.
Anthony actually ended up making both free throws — the second on accident. On the other end, Harden hit both of his, and now the Knicks were forced to depend on a half-court buzzer-beater instead of a three-pointer from a player who made 157 of them last season.
Introducing so many variables can make coaches nervous, especially since if it backfires, the heat comes down on them instead of the players. If you don’t foul, and the opposing play nails a 3? The player gets the accolades, and the coach gets very little criticism, if any at all.
It’s a risky move for that reason alone, but it also requires a lot of trust in your players, both to foul correctly, box out, and inbound the ball or make free throws if time permits.
Some may think the Rockets got lucky, that leaving a decision to the ref, on the road, against a star player, was foolish. But at least in this instance, fortune favored the bold.
Rockets 109, Knicks 106: Carmelo Anthony gave it his all — 45 points, 10 rebounds and he almost got a four-point play at the end that might have changed everything — but in the end he couldn’t overcome the lack interior defense that the Rockets were able to exploit. No, it wasn’t Dwight Howard who did the exploiting — he got outplayed by Andrea Bargnani. Seriously. At both ends. Rather it was James Harden (36 points), Chandler Parsons (22) and Jeremy Lin (21, nine of those in the fourth quarter) that ended up being too much for New York. The Knicks are 3-5 on the season and you know James Dolan is stewing.
Warriors 116, Thunder 115: This game was just fun. Pure entertainment. Not a lot of defense but who wants to watch that over threes and dunks? Golden State’s Klay Thompson was 6-of-9 from three on his way to 27 points, while teammate Stephen Curry was 4-of-8 on his way to 20. However it was all almost for naught as the Thunder overcame a 14-point deficit to take the late lead thanks to a dramatic Russell Westbrook deep three (he finished with 31 in his best game since his return). Then Andre Iguodala hit a leaning jumper as the buzzer sounded and the Warriors got the win.