A foul strategy?
AT&T CENTER–As another Oklahoma City Thunder intentionally wrapped up Spurs center Tiago Splitter, sending him yet again to the free throw line, the San Antonio crowd roared its disdain at the tactics at hand.
The San Antonio Spurs faithful either lacked self-awareness, a grasp on the irony of the situation, or were following in the sardonic footsteps of their team’s head coach.
“I’ve never done that before, I think it’s a really lousy thing to do. It’s unsportsmanlike,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich cracked before relenting on the merits of the strategy. “No, it’s a good move if there’s a reason to do it, and they felt there was a reason to do it, so it’s a good move.”
Popovich and the Spurs of course have been the biggest practitioners of the Hack-A-Poor-Shooter over the past few year, utilizing it to great effect in the previous series against the Clippers.
And in Game 2, Thunder head coach Scott Brook’s reasons for employing it were two-fold.
First, the San Antonio Spurs were rolling with a brand of perfect basketball execution the world has not seen in quite some time. His young team was suffocating under the tremendous pressure the Spurs offense was applying and they needed a reprieve from the barrage of drive and kick three-pointers if only to catch their breath and regroup.
Second, a wrist injury suffered in the first round playoff series against the Jazz has rendered Tiago Splitter a 36 percent free throw shooter–down from 68 percent prior to the injury.
Splitter managed to hit six of his 12 attempts from the charity stripe, and over the course of the two and a half minutes in which the Thunder sent him to the free throw line repeatedly the Spurs 17-point lead was shaved a whopping one point.
Still, the disruption of the game did more than anger its basketball audience. It disrupted the rhythm of the Spurs. And while the juxtaposition of the Spurs beautiful mastery of ball movement, execution, and shooting against 10 players stagnant on the court while Splitter shot free throws was jarring for fans, it was absolutely the right call competitively.
“Thing kind of got slowed down and we junked it up a little bit and got off our rhythm,” Spurs center Tim Duncan said. “We were flowing so good int eh first half and then they did a good job of changing, but we held on and made enough plays down the stretch and that was a good win for us.”
After the third quarter display last night there will be renewed calls for the NBA to revisit its policy on intentional fouling. The tactic is, at its heart, an exploitation of a rule in a manner not intended that disrupts the flow of a game. Fans don’t want to see, players are sheepish carrying it out, and coaches–even Popovich–employ it with some level of guilt.
Yet for the Thunder, and at times for the sake of competition, it’s a necessary evil akin to intentionally walking a devastating power hitter with a base open and a weaker bat behind him in baseball.
Fans don’t want to see either scenario play out if they had their preference. But then, outside of Spurs fans, I doubt too many would have been thrilled about the prospect of watching an entire fourth quarter of garbage time as the Spurs ran away with a 20-point lead.
“It changed the tempo a little bit,” Brooks said. “I mean, they were fast tonight. That ball was just all over the floor with quick passess, passes that were right in their shooting pockets, and it kind of threw their rhythm out a little bit.
This momentary hiccup allowed the Thunder to regroup while throwing the Spurs off kilter, which set the table for big playoff moments down the stretch from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili that the NBA will gladly showcase in its highlight packages.
Prior to the game Brooks admitted to never having used the foul strategy before, and perhaps his inexperience with it showed–you don’t, for example, pick up a technical foul while also intentionally fouling. But it is a strategy he stated will be available in the future if need be.
Popovich of course will be prepared for it. And in being prepared he will dismiss the tactic without having to make wholesale changes to the NBA rulebook.
The easiest solution of course is to hit free throws, something Hoop Idea proponents like Beckley Mason or Hardwood Paroxysm’s Matt Moore would argue is impossible to teach despite Splitter’s improved stroke prior to the injury.
Beyond that there is coaching to maximize a rotation’s strengths while minimizing its weaknesses. Splitter, for example, gets the bulk of his playing time at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters when his foul drawing ability helps the Spurs get in the bonus earlier, where good free throw shooters and slashers such as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can take advantage.
Taking advantage of an opponent’s weakness, within the context of the current rules, is not bad form. It’s brilliant strategy. And the answer to the perceived dilemma is not to take smarter coaches chess boards away and forcing them to play checkers with the rest of the NBA, but to call for better players and better coaching to close this loophole.