June 11, 2018
Nick Elam, Ph.D.

Because there is no guarantee that a basketball game will end with any kind of accomplishment, we see some of the sport’s biggest games end with a whimper. Such was true during the 2018 NBA Playoffs, where each of the 15 series was clinched in a most forgettable way:


  • Pelicans’ Jrue Holiday allows ball to bounce away unattended in frontcourt while exchanging handshake and hug with Trailblazers’ Evan Turner
  • TNT did not bother to show final 1.8 seconds of Heat/76ers
  • Spurs’ Manu Ginobili dribbles out clock unguarded (while trailing) in frontcourt at Warriors
  • Timberwolves’ Jamal Crawford holds ball unguarded (while trailing) in backcourt at Rockets
  • Raptors’ Kyle Lowry gathers defensive rebound of Wizards’ Kelly Oubre’s blocked meaningless lay-up attempt
  • Time expires before Thunder’s Carmelo Anthony can attempt meaningless three-pointer at Jazz
  • Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo misses meaningless three-pointer at Celtics
  • Cavaliers’ LeBron James catches inbounds pass unguarded in backcourt and throws ball directly into air to exhaust time vs. Pacers


  • Raptors’ Lorenzo Brown dribbles out clock unguarded (while trailing) in frontcourt at Cavaliers
  • Rockets’ Trevor Ariza holds ball unguarded in frontcourt vs. Jazz
  • Pelicans’ Nikola Mirotic allows ball to roll away unguarded (while trailing) in backcourt at Warriors
  • Celtics’ Marcus Smart intercepts fullcourt pass and heaves back toward other end of court to exhaust time vs. 76ers


  • ABC did not bother to show final 8.0 seconds of Cavaliers/Celtics
  • Warriors’ Stephen Curry holds ball in frontcourt while shaking hands with Rockets’ Clint Capela


  • Warriors’ Jordan Bell holds ball unguarded in frontcourt at Cavaliers

Basketball is one of the most exciting sports to enjoy as the game unfolds. But given that games often end so unceremoniously, and given that basketball features a fluid nature and frequent scoring throughout the game leading up to that ending, basketball is especially vulnerable to having the proceedings of its games fade completely from memory – without a single signature moment or lasting image to carry on.

Read here for more about the hybrid duration format that would guarantee that every game, every series, every championship would be sealed with a memorable swish of a net.

Continue reading to see more detailed information about the game clock’s warping effect on late-game quality and style of play:

This particular sample includes each of the 82 games from the 2018 NBA Playoffs (four of these games proceeded to overtime, so 86 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered)

Trailing teams often commit deliberate fouls late in games in an effort to conserve time. The effectiveness of this strategy can be categorized in the following ways:

  • Counterproductive: fouling team ends same period with a deficit equal to or greater than its deficit at the time of the first deliberate foul
  • Futile: fouling team ends same period with a deficit narrower than its original deficit, but still trailing (and losing, necessarily)
  • Partially Successful: fouling team ends same period in a tie with its opponent, forcing overtime (or an additional overtime)
  • Completely Successful: fouling team ends same period with the lead (and the win, necessarily)

Trailing NBA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 39 of the 86 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods.

Overall, the foul-a-thons produced the following underwhelming level of success:

Counterproductive 33 (84.6%)
Futile 5 (12.8%)
Partially Successful 1 (2.6%)
Completely Successful 0 (0.0%)

Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 86 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods. In many other games, the leading team was deliberately fouled before it had the chance to stall. And in most of the remaining instances, the trailing team overtly conceded the game before the leading team would have normally considered stalling. None of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods was truly stalling-free.

In nine instances, a leading NBA team willingly accepted a shot clock violation while stalling in the closing seconds. In one instance, a trailing NBA team willingly accepted a shot clock violation while stalling in the closing seconds.

The game clock further contributes to an ugly brand of basketball by forcing the trailing (and in some cases, tied) team to attempt ugly shots. This effect is strongest during the final possession of a 4th quarter/2nd half/overtime period. By merely featuring average offensive proficiency in such scenarios, the games of the 2018 NBA Playoffs defied the trend of late-game sloppiness set by thousands of games sampled in a broader study over the last four seasons.

Ten of the sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Five of those possessions were converted (on 1.10 points per possession):

  • April 14 (4Q): Bucks’ Khris Middleton makes catch-and-shoot three-pointer from beyond hash mark at Celtics (Eastern Conference First Round Game 1)
  • April 20: Cavaliers’ J.R. Smith misses pull-up transition three-pointer from hash mark off bottom of backboard at Pacers (Eastern Conference First Round Game 3)
  • April 22: Celtics’ Marcus Morris misses baseline mid-range two-point jumper at Bucks (Eastern Conference First Round Game 4)
  • April 25: Cavaliers’ LeBron James makes three-pointer vs. Pacers (Eastern Conference First Round Game 5)
  • May 1 (4Q): Cavaliers’ LeBron James misses catch-and-shoot turnaround fadeaway long two-point jumper off side of rim at Raptors (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1)
  • May 5 (4Q): 76ers’ Marco Belinelli makes catch-and-shoot turnaround long two-point jumper vs. Celtics (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 3)
  • May 5 (OT): 76ers’ Marco Belinelli misses drifting three-pointer off back of rim vs. Celtics (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 3)
  • May 5: Cavaliers’ LeBron James makes running one-handed bank shot vs. Raptors (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 3)
  • May 22: Warriors’ Stephen Curry misses catch-and-shoot turnaround three-pointer off front of rim vs. Rockets (Western Conference Finals Game 4)
  • May 31 (4Q): Time expires before Cavaliers’ George Hill can attempt sideline three-pointer at Warriors, though Cavaliers’ had tied game on George Hill free throw earlier in same possession (NBA Finals Game 1)

Even if we broaden the definition from actual buzzer beater possessions to potential buzzer beater possessions (any possession where the offense is tied or trailing by 1-3 points, with the shot clock turned off), NBA teams still converted only 11 of 27 (40.7%) such possessions (on 0.96 points per possession).

Trailing NBA teams conceded 68 of 82 sampled games (82.9%) by choosing not to foul deliberately (on at least one late possession when the strategy would have been advisable) while on defense and/or by choosing not to play at a frantic pace (on at least one late possession when the strategy would have been advisable) while on offense and/or by taking its best players out of the game. This does not include a number of instances when teams conceded by choosing not to use all of its available timeouts (to automatically advance the ball into the frontcourt). This includes at least six instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

Such close games would never be conceded under a hybrid format.

The final three minutes of all 86 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included 20 clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including:

  • April 22: after Celtics committed a foul on a rebound attempt at Bucks as time expired, an anticlimactic review confirmed that no time should be restored to game clock (Eastern Conference First Round Game 4)
  • May 1 (OT): after Raptors committed deliberate foul-to-give vs. Cavaliers as time expired, an especially anticlimactic review restored 0.3 seconds to the game clock (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1)

The final minute of nine NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer.

The final moment of a given basketball game usually falls into one of five categories:

  • Meaningful made basket (also known as a buzzer beater!)
  • Unsuccessful meaningful possession (when offense trails by 1-3 points)
  • Meaningless (made or missed) shot attempt (when offense already leads, or trails by four points or more; this category also includes additional instances when a player clearly intended to take a meaningless shot, but when time expired before shot could be released)
  • Leading player stalls (in most cases, casually dribbling or holding the ball; in especially close games, this might include a player/team actively evading its opponent’s attempt to commit a deliberate foul)
  • Trailing player stalls (the most striking form of conceding)

The 82 sampled NBA games ended in the following ways…

Meaningful Made Basket 2 (2.4%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession 4 (4.9%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt 7 (8.5%)
Leading Player Stalls 56 (68.3%)
Trailing Player Stalls 13 (15.9%)

Let’s now consider all 4th quarter/2nd half/overtime periods (not just those at the true end of a game), and categorize possible period endings a little differently than in a previous section (listed in decreasing order of excitement):

  • Made basket to win
  • Made basket to tie
  • Unsuccessful meaningful possession (by tied team or team trailing by 1-3 points)
  • Meaningless possession (when offense already has lead, or trails by four points or more)

Four overtime periods were played in sampled NBA games, and can be categorized as follows:

  • Ending of overtime period failed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 4, including:
    • May 31: Cavaliers did not have possession within three points of lead for final 3:52 of overtime, en route to ten-point loss at Warriors (NBA Finals Game 1)
  • Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0
  • Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Any overtime period, necessarily, follows a nearly-impossible-to-follow act – a 4th quarter/2ndhalf/earlier overtime period that was, by definition, as competitive as can be.

Leading NBA teams allowed at least ten uncontested field goals during sampled games.

A trailing team will sometimes intentionally miss a free throw attempt if circumstances are just right (have one free throw attempt remaining, during closing seconds of game, usually trailing by exactly two or three points) as a way to continue a crucial late possession. A leading team will sometimes do the same under a similarly restrictive set of circumstances (have one free throw attempt remaining, during closing seconds of game, usually leading by exactly one or two points) as a way to saddle its opponent with an extremely unfavorable ensuing final shot

The effectiveness of the intentionally-missed-free-throw strategy can be measured by its immediate success (whether a trailing team indeed gathered an offensive rebound; whether a leading team indeed saddled its opponent with a subsequent shot less favorable than it would have faced if the free throw had been made) and its ultimate success (whether a trailing team indeed overcame its deficit; whether a leading team indeed protected its lead). The contrasting success of these strategies further illustrates the disproportionate difficulty of overcoming a late deficit (and the correspondingly disproportionate ease of protecting a late lead)

A trailing NBA team employed the strategy once during sampled games, and was immediately unsuccessful and ultimately unsuccessful. No leading NBA team employed the strategy during sampled games.

During the final three minutes of sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods, a trailing team committed a deliberate foul when its opponent was not yet in the bonus (and, consequently, did not serve deliberate fouling’s primary purpose of sending the leading team to the free throw line) in six periods – essentially punishing the trailing team for having committed too few fouls earlier in the period! – including:

  • May 1 (OT): Raptors’ first deliberate foul did not send Cavaliers to the free throw line, and time expired before they could follow up with another foul (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1)

While the fouls-to-give phenomenon disadvantages trailing teams, leading teams can use fouls-to-give to their advantage (by forcing a trailing offense to restart a late possession after exhausting a few valuable seconds) – making late deficits more difficult still to overcome. One leading NBA team enjoyed the fouls-to-give advantage.

During sampled games, eight NBA players committed a sixth foul (or a flagrant-2 foul) deliberately and/or in overtime.


  • May 7 Celtics at 76ers (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 4): Fans booed loudly when Celtics fouled deliberately while trailing by nine points with 32.1 seconds remaining; Celtics conceded the game by electing not to foul on the next possession