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.


    Naw…Splitter was faking his poor F/T shooting this whole time just to nail them when Hack- A-Tiago tactic (antic) were to be implemented.

  • ThatBigGuy

    The Hack-A-Splitter also extends the time, meaning our “old” players are getting more rest. I imagine it takes at least 2 minutes to complete a Hack-A-Splitter, instead of, at the very most, 24 seconds on a normal possession. All of a sudden, Tim’s rest only took 3 minutes off the game clock, but gave him 12 or 13 real time rest minutes. If Splitter can knock down at least 50%, I don’t see a downside. 

  • Guest

    I like the comparison between hacking a bad FT shooter and the intentional walk in baseball. Those strategies are hard to legislate away.

    HoopIdea says that a team should be able to decline the FTs and inbound the ball. This would work as an addition to the current rules. Bill Simmons wants the refs to make judgment calls on those types of fouls, and give them the ability to call technicals. That would stop the practice really fast, but would be somewhat subject to the judgment of the refs. Extremely obvious hacking would be pretty easy to spot though.

  • Hassanelsir

    it would affect our offensive rhythm though…

  • pastrypride

    There’s really no evidence that had any effect on the game (I don’t consider player comments evidence; they believe in lots of urban myths and superstitions). Every commentator seems to assume that it did. To me, it seemed obvious that OKC turned things around by playing a better lineup and by turning up their defensive intensity. I don’t think this SA offensive machine gets rusty from watching someone shoot a few FT’s. Wasn’t there a long stretch, including a break between quarters, between the hack-a-Splitter and the OKC run? Didn’t they come out firing against the Clippers in spite of a long rest?

  • Marinendn

    Your article is so one sided.  You forget, no, you failed to mention that the Spurs in both games in this series were wrapping up Thunder players when the Thunder forced a turnover and/or had a brilliant fastbreak opportunity, taking away one of their best qualitites as a team.

  • http://twitter.com/blanchard48moh Jesse Blanchard

    How is this article one-sided? I called it good strategy.

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  • Alamo

    Splitter has had some good moments on defense and a few “give and go” offensive plays where he’s able to make lay ups…the only shots he can possibly make, but is so mechanical, it’s pathetic. In game 1 against OKC when he threw up the air ball on a FT attempt, I thought Pop would have pulled him immmediately…or as soon as he could. If and when Tim needs a rest why and hell he doesn’t play De Juan Blair is incomprehensible. Blair is big…not tall, but quick and athletic and can take the pounding the post area provides. Blair provides points with his good hands and quickness. He and Boris Diaw complement each other well and Genobili’s passing could provide high percentage points in the post.

    “Hack-a-Blair”, will not work nearly as well as it will against Splitter who surprisingly enough did make around 50 percent of his FTs, Monday. Hope to see Mr Blair spell Tim Duncan in tonight’s game and not give the Thunder time to disrupt the Spurs’ sparkling offense.

    Give hell Spurs!!!! 

  • Jjonathany82

    Re: the guilt associated with the tactic.  I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about forcing an opponent to demonstrate they possess the most basic, fundamental basketball skill.  The ones who should feel guilty are the professional basketball players making millions of dollars while being unable to shoot at least 50% on free throws.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000585245896 Rd Martin

    It does make it easier for starters to play more when they get an extra 10 minutes rest while FT are being shot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000585245896 Rd Martin

    I hate that is a good strategy being a Spurs fan :)
    But then again,  hate that Tiago doesn’t make FT.

  • Ace Smith

    The thunder should bot be instituting any foul strategy they should be dictating the game with their high powered offense and great shot blocking! ibaka has to wake up as well as perkins! if they just made the shots they should have made in ga,e two they might have won! i wrote all about it on my blog where i give u a preview and tell u how to bet it ! come check it out and enjoy! http://nbawagers.com/2012/05/hack-a-splitter/

  • WarpTen

    Wow, great analysis; “if they make shots they win”. Too bad there’s a quality team on the floor trying to keep that from happening.

  • Vermont Spurs Fan

    Spoken like someone who does not like the Brazilian! 

    You really underestimate the value of Splitter…

  • ThatBigGuy

     That’s standard operating procedure for every team, and Westbrook’s done that exact thing twice himself. It’s a distant cousin to the Hack-A-Blank, but not the same thing.

  • ThatBigGuy

     I think Splitter is a much better player than Blair in general, but in this situation, you may be correct. If Splitter, hits better than 50% from the line, Blair doesn’t need to come in the game. However, if he struggles, Blair could come in and at least make OKC abandon the Hack-A-Blank approach. On the other hand, it’s been weeks since Blair saw the court and he’s got to be rusty as heck.

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