Was Coach Pop right to play for 2, down 3 with 13.8 left?


After Randolph hit a jumper with 13.8 seconds left, the Grizzlied led by the score of 93-90. The age old question came into play. Should the Spurs look for a quick 2 or the 3? There is an obvious intuitive preference for the 3. Even if you score a two, you need to foul and score again. If the other team hits both free throws, you are in the same situation as before, but with less time to try to find a three point opportunity. If you are lucky enough for an opponent to miss, scoring on the last possession is still no easy task. For the two point shot to be a viable option, it needs to be so easy that it outweighs all these factors.


There are a ton of considerations that should go into every decision within any play. I am going to make a bunch of general estimated assumptions to get an overall feel for how efficient a 2 point attempt should be. Here’s a list of assumptions:

  • Applicable possessions must start with less than 24 seconds left (and more than 10 seconds).
  • Each team is 50/50 to win in overtime
  • Teams hold for the last shot in all scenarios other than the possibility of a quick 2 considered in the above scenario.
  • The odds of making a shot with a possession beginning down 3 is about 1 in 5.
  • The win percentage is about 1 in 10.
  • The odds of making a shot with a possession beginning down 2 is about 1 in 3.
  • The win percentage in this scenario is about 1 in 6.
  • These odds remain the same for the next possession
  • The game is lost if the 2 point shot is missed.
  • A 70% free throw shooter is fouled with a 50% chance of missing at least 1

Applying the aforementioned assumptions, a 2 point field goal needs to be at least 75% successful to be a worthwhile option. [(50%*1/6+50%*1/10)*75%=1/10].

Lost yet? Well basically I made up a bunch of numbers and concluded that if you forgo the 3 in the above situation, you should be very confident it works. And quickly. There are a ton of additional considerations that need to be made such as the probability of winning outright, the multiple possessions, the diminishing scoring expectation, etc.; but the result makes sense to me logically. If anything, I suspect 75% might be a low estimate.

Did Coach Pop make the right call?

So was the Spurs play a good play call. It definitely seemed so at the time. Let’s ignore that Memphis proceeded to hit both free throws any way. Let’s also ignore the fact that the Spurs did eventually win in overtime. From what the Spurs knew at the moment, if they need to be a 2 point attempt to be worthwhile, it needs to be opportunistic. Typically that means that looking for a good 3-point attempt and adapting to the defense overplaying. In this case, however, the quick 2 point play seems reasonable, provided you have a good decision maker delivering the ball. There are plenty of possibilities for error and most are related to the pass. Duncan may not be the Spurs best passer, but he seems to be a very good decision maker.

For the most part, if you have a good play and a clever cutter such as Manu, permitting the option of an easy deuce should only produce a positive effect. If it’s not there, hold on to the ball. Starting a possession with 11 seconds left isn’t much worse than starting one with 14 seconds. For a breakdown of the play, check out Sebastian Pruiti’s take at nbaplaybook.

Additionally, the occasional two theoretically creates an advantage in the game of chess. It might make the next 3-point attempt easier. Many of these factors didn’t really seem to play a large part in the final result, but sometimes they can be the difference between winning and going home for the season.

  • Rob

    What I think it allowed was the Spurs to have more offensive possessions during that time. Having concluded that fouling was the only way to stop the clock and take the chance that one or both FT’s by Memphis may be missed…it would give the Spurs the opportunity at the end to not have to make a three.

    Fortunately things worked out the way they did…but I’d say it was the right play.

  • Sambo

    all i know is i was pulling my hair out for a good 20 minutes straight.. oh its over, woot its overtime, overturned, its over. woot overtime..

    i dont smoke but i felt like one after that game. I hope that gives our boys the confidence we have come to see this season and we can swing the series back and close it out at home

  • Anonymous

    Great play! Tony Allen almost always overplays and both Manu & Tim made good reads. Great pass from Tim.

  • Bob

    I think the idea is you want to extend the game as long as possible. You might take a 3 if it’s available and a good shot. If you extend the game you give them the chance of missing free throws or turning over the ball. You want to execute and get the best available shot.

    One things I think alot of teams don’t do but should when they’re in that situation is be aggressive in going for steals. Basically just chase down the ball. They have to foul anyway. If they get called for the foul good otherwise they could potentially get the ball right back. There is also the fact that refs tend to allow alot more at the end of a game. They try not to decide the game and let them play.

  • Kevin

    Although it is a very low chance, so maybe it doesn’t change the overall analysis… there is also a very slight chance that you make a 2 AND manage to get a foul called, for the old-fashioned 3-point-play. That and the chance for a steal (like bob mentioned).

  • Junierizzle

    I was thinking about it the other day. We’ve seen teams in this situations before. I don’t have any stats to back it up but it seems the team with a 3 point lead wins more times then not. Teams play the free throw game and it rarely works. Mainly because the team with the lead doesn’t miss any free throws. Randolph didn’t miss any. Usually it ends up with the losing team jacking up a three and missing it.
    ORLANDO was in the same situation against the HAWKS. They had the same strategy but they missed their 3 point attempts. I can’t remember the last time this strategy worked.
    SPURS scored 7 points in about 13 seconds. I still can’t believe the strategy finally worked. It was a lucky break. Hopefully the SPURS go on to win the series because they have had some tough breaks. The .04 shot, Fisher landing on Bones’ head and no call at the end of the game, Manu fouling Dirk, Manu missing the playoffs completely, SPURS blowing a 20 point lead to the LAkers.
    It’s about time they get a break.