BAD TIMING: SORRY, WE RAN OUT OF REAL BASKETBALL FOR THE NIGHT

March 12, 2018
Nicholas Patrick, Ph.D.

On March 3, the Celtics visited the Rockets for a highly-anticipated match-up, and treated us to 48 minutes of high-quality, highly-entertaining basketball. Er, make that 47 minutes and 44.4 seconds of high-quality, highly-entertaining basketball. See, at this moment, this game all-too predictably ran out of good basketball, and instead offered us some sort of artificial basketball-like substitute for the remaining 15.6 seconds of game time (which took 14 minutes and 20 seconds of actual time to complete!), in the following sequence:

  • Celtics commit deliberate foul-to-give with 15.6 seconds remaining, while trailing Rockets 117-115
  • Celtics follow up with another deliberate foul with 15.0 seconds remaining after ensuing Rockets inbounds pass
  • Chris Paul makes both free throws to extend Rockets’ lead to 119-115
  • Kyrie Irving makes driving lay-up with 7.9 seconds remaining, to cut Celtics’ deficit to 119-117
  • Celtics commit deliberate foul with 7.4 seconds remaining
  • James Harden makes first free throw to extend Rockets’ lead to 120-117, then misses second free throw; ball goes out of bounds with 6.1 seconds remaining on scramble for rebound
  • Officials conduct replay review, award possession to Celtics
  • Celtics call timeout to advance ball to frontcourt
  • Rockets commit deliberate foul with 5.2 seconds remaining to prevent potential game-tying three-pointer
  • Kyrie Irving makes first free throw, then accidentally makes second free throw (ball rattles in, despite a clearly unnatural shooting motion) to cut Celtics’ deficit to 120-119
  • Celtics commit deliberate foul with 4.0 seconds remaining
  • Chris Paul makes both free throws to extend Rockets’ lead to 122-119
  • Rockets commit deliberate foul with 2.8 seconds remaining to prevent potential game-tying three-pointer
  • Kyrie Irving makes first free throw to cut Celtics’ deficit to 122-120, then intentionally misses second free throw – but misses the rim entirely, automatically granting possession to the Rockets
  • Rockets call timeout to advance ball to frontcourt
  • Rockets call another timeout after struggling to inbound ball
  • Celtics commit deliberate foul with 2.3 seconds remaining
  • Eric Gordon misses first free throw, then makes second free throw to extend Rockets’ lead to 123-120
  • Marcus Smart misses catch-and-shoot turnaround three-pointer as time expires

Ugh. Under basketball’s current format, quality of play deteriorates late in games all too often. Sure, basketball treats us to some great finishes, but the current format is very fragile – so many circumstances have to align just right in order for us to enjoy a great finish, and to enjoy good basketball in the possessions leading up to that great finish. Read here to learn about a format that would be much sturdier – one that would treat us to so many more games with a great finish, and with good basketball in the possessions leading up to that great finish – because circumstances wouldn’t have to align so perfectly for it to deliver.

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 32 nationally-televised NBA games played February 19, 2018 – March 11, 2018 (one of these games proceeded to overtime, so 33 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered), and each of the 47 NCAA men’s games televised live by ESPNU from February 19, 2018 – March 11, 2018 (one of these games proceeded to overtime, so 48 total 2nd half/overtime periods are considered)

DELIBERATE FOULING
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 15 of the 33 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods, and trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 27 of the 48 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods (in three instances, trailing NCAA teams committed a deliberate foul before a leading team inbounds pass, and once fouled deliberately away from the play, essentially handpicking the opponent’s free-throw shooter; the NBA has effectively legislated out these practices, but this unsightly trend grows in the NCAA).

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

NBA NCAA
Counterproductive 14 (93.3%) 23 (85.2%)
Futile 1 (6.7%) 4 (14.8%)
Partially Successful 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%)
Completely Successful 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%)

STALLING
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 33 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.

None of the 48 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods was truly stalling-free.

In one instance, a leading NBA team willingly accepted a shot clock violation while stalling in the closing seconds. Two leading NCAA teams willingly accepted a shot clock violation while stalling in the closing seconds.

RUSHED/SLOPPY/INCOMPLETE POSSESSIONS
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.

Consider that five of the sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. None of those possessions was converted (on zero points per possession):

  • February 27: Bucks’ Eric Bledsoe fumbles inbounds pass before attempting turnaround three-pointer vs. Wizards
  • March 3: Celtics’ Marcus Smart misses catch-and-shoot turnaround three-pointer at Rockets
  • March 7 (4Q): Pistons’ Reggie Bullock catch-and-shoot halfcourt shot lands short of basket vs. Raptors
  • March 7 (OT): Pistons’ Blake Griffin misses catch-and-shoot turnaround deep three-pointer off back of rim vs. Raptors
  • March 8: Spurs’ Bryn Forbes misses catch-and-shoot three-pointer off front of rim at Warriors

Five of the sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only one (20.0%) of those possessions was converted (on 0.40 points per possession):

  • February 20: Saint Louis’s Javon Bess misses pull-up transition three-pointer at Dayton
  • February 23 (2H): Time expires before Princeton’s Aaron Young can attempt halfcourt shot vs. Harvard
  • March 1: Long Beach State’s Deishaun Booker makes driving lay-up at UC-Santa Barbara
  • March 8: Time expires before South Florida can gather offensive rebound of Justin Brown’s intentionally missed free throw vs. Memphis (American Athletic Conference Tournament First Round in Orlando)
  • March 9: UC-Santa Barbara’s Marcus Jackson misses pull-up transition deep three-pointer off front of rim vs. UC-Irvine (Big West Conference Tournament Semifinal in Anaheim)

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 four of 18 (22.2%) such possessions (on 0.83 points per possession), and NCAA teams converted only two of nine (22.2%) such possessions (on 0.44 points per possession).

CONCEDING
Trailing NBA teams conceded 23 of 32 sampled games (71.9%) 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 one instance when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

Trailing NCAA teams conceded 38 of 47 sampled games (80.9%) by choosing not to foul deliberately while on defense and/or by choosing not to play at a frantic pace while on offense. This includes at least three instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

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

CLOCK CONTROVERSIES
The final three minutes of all 33 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included six clock reviews/errors/malfunctions.

The final four minutes of all 48 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included ten clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including:

  • February 21 Texas Tech at Oklahoma State: after a Texas Tech made basket with 1:11 remaining in a close game, as the ball lazily bounced its way toward midcourt, the clock ran all the way down to 55.9 before the ensuing inbounds pass was attempted; was never addressed by officials
  • March 1 Long Beach State at UC-Santa Barbara: officials immediately blew whistle after UCSB made basket at 1:29, but clock continued to run all the way down to 1:22; was never addressed by officials
  • March 8 Tulane vs. Temple (American Athletic Conference Tournament First Round in Orlando): a two-minute review ultimately left the clock unchanged at 0.1 after Tulane committed a deliberate foul while trailing, making Temple’s victory awfully anticlimactic

INTERMINABLE FINAL STAGES
The final minute of four NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer, including:

  • March 3 Celtics at Rockets: 15:03 (one made field goal)

The final minute of three NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer, including:

  • March 8 South Florida vs. Memphis (American Athletic Conference Tournament First Round in Orlando): 12:43 (1)

UNCEREMONIOUS ENDINGS
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 32 sampled NBA games and 47 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways…

NBA NCAA
Meaningful Made Basket 0 (0.0%) 1 (2.1%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession 4 (12.5%) 3 (6.4%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt 2 (6.25%) 3 (6.4%)
Leading Player Stalls 24 (75.0%) 37 (78.7%)
Trailing Player Stalls 2 (6.25%) 3 (6.4%)

ANTICLIMACTIC OVERTIMES
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)

One overtime period was 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: 0
  • Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 1
  • Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0

One overtime period was played in sampled NCAA games, and can be categorized as follows:

  • Ending of overtime period failed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 1
    • February 23: Princeton did not have possession within three points of lead for final 3:52 of overtime, en route to six-point loss vs. Harvard
  • 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.

UNCONTESTED SHOTS
Leading NBA teams allowed at least two uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least seven uncontested field goals during sampled games.

INTENTIONALLY MISSED FREE THROW ATTEMPTS
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 twice during sampled games, and was immediately and ultimately unsuccessful both times. No leading NBA team employed the strategy during sampled games.

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

FOULS-TO-GIVE DISADVANTAGE
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 five periods – essentially punishing the trailing team for having committed too few fouls earlier in the period! – including:

  • February 27: Bucks’ first deliberate foul did not send Wizards to the free throw line; needed to spend extra 1.0 seconds to send Wizards to the free throw line, leaving themselves only 0.8 seconds for their final possession (which was unsuccessful)

During the final four minutes of sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods, a trailing team committed a deliberate foul when its opponent was not yet in the bonus in three periods.

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.

FOULOUTS
During sampled games, three NBA players committed a sixth foul deliberately and/or in overtime. Eight NCAA players committed a fifth foul deliberately and/or in overtime.

ROLLED INBOUNDS PASSES
During sampled games, trailing NCAA offenses rolled at least 32 inbounds passes in an effort to conserve time, including in the following eyebrow-raising situation:

  • March 10: Eastern Washington, trailing by 19 points with 31.3 seconds remaining, vs. Montana (Big Sky Conference Tournament Championship in Reno)

VACATING THE FREE THROW LANE
During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses vacated the foul lane in 34 instances during the last free throw attempt of a trip, for fear of committing a clock-stopping foul during a rebound attempt. Curiously, one team also vacated the lane while trailing.

LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!

  • February 24 Tulane at South Florida: officials initiate a replay review for an out-of-bounds call…with Tulane leading by 11 points with 2.9 seconds remaining! This made the ESPNU broadcasters, um, a little restless
  • February 28 Florida State at Clemson: fans booed loudly with 16.6 seconds remaining after Florida State committed their fifth deliberate foul in a game they would ultimately lose by 13 points