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.