BAD TIMING: STRAIGHT OUT OF CENTRAL CASTING

April 13, 2018
Nicholas Patrick, Ph.D.

Certain kinds of games – the kinds of games that reaffirm the merit of the hybrid duration format discussed here – unfold quite frequently and reliably under basketball’s current format. Predictably, the 2018 NCAA Tournament featured many games that fit into these categories:

HISTORIC GAMES THAT LACKED A SINGLE SIGNATURE MOMENT (THE ELAM ENDING WOULD GUARANTEE THAT HISTORIC GAMES – EVEN BLOWOUT GAMES – HAVE A WALK-OFF SHOT TO PRESERVE ITS MEMORY)

  • UMBC/Virginia (South First Round in Charlotte)
  • Loyola-Chicago/Kansas State (South Regional Final in Atlanta)
  • Michigan/Villanova (National Championship in San Antonio)

GAMES CONCEDED BY TEAM TRAILING BY SLIM (SIX POINTS OR FEWER) DEFICIT (SUCH SLIM DEFICITS WOULD NEVER FEEL INSURMOUNTABLE UNDER THE ELAM ENDING)

  • Texas/Nevada (South First Round in Nashville)
  • Florida State/Xavier (West Second Round in Nashville)
  • Clemson/Kansas (Midwest Regional Semifinal in Omaha)
  • Florida State/Michigan (West Regional Final in Los Angeles)
  • Duke/Kansas (Midwest Regional Final in Omaha)

POSSIBLE LATE COMEBACK THAT WAS HINDERED BY THE NEED TO REPEATEDLY HAND AWAY FREE POINTS AT THE FOUL LINE (THE ELAM ENDING WOULD MAKE LATE COMEBACKS MORE LIKELY, BY OFFERING TRAILING DEFENSES THE OPTION OF PLAYING REAL DEFENSE)

  • Davidson/Kentucky (South First Round in Boise): Davidson lost by five points, in a game where they had to hand away ten free points at the foul line down the stretch
  • Alabama/Virginia Tech (East First Round in Pittsburgh): Virginia Tech lost by three points, in a game where they had to hand away seven free points at the foul line down the stretch
  • Providence/Texas A&M (West First Round in Charlotte): Providence lost by four points, in a game where they had to hand away four free points at the foul line down the stretch
  • Texas/Nevada (South First Round in Nashville): Texas lost by four points, in a game where they had to hand away four free points at the foul line down the stretch
  • Bucknell/Michigan State (Midwest First Round in Detroit): Bucknell lost by four points, in a game where they had to hand away seven free points at the foul line down the stretch
  • Seton Hall/Kansas (Midwest Second Round in Wichita): Seton Hall lost by four points, in a game where they had to hand away at least six free points at the foul line down the stretch
  • Ohio State/Gonzaga (West Second Round in Boise): Ohio State lost by six points, in a game where they had to hand away ten free points at the foul line down the stretch
  • Clemson/Kansas (Midwest Regional Semifinal in Omaha): Clemson lost by four points, in a game where they had to hand away six free points at the foul line down the stretch
  • Florida State/Michigan (West Regional Final in Los Angeles): Florida State lost by four points, in a game where they had to hand away four free points at the foul line down the stretch
  • Duke/Kansas (Midwest Regional Final in Omaha): Duke lost by four points, in a game where they had to hand away four free points at the foul line down the stretch

GAME WHERE FANS WERE EXCITED JUST TO SEE A WALK-ON STEP ONTO THE COURT (THE ELAM ENDING WOULD PROVIDE THE OPPORTUNITY FOR WALK-ONS TO MAKE WALK-OFF SHOTS)

  • Cal State-Fullerton/Purdue (East First Round in Detroit)
  • Clemson/Auburn (Midwest Second Round in San Diego)

GAME WITH CLOCK REVIEW THAT DAMPENED EXCITEMENT AND/OR ADDED UNNECESSARY CONTROVERSY

  • Loyola-Chicago/Miami (South First Round in Dallas)
  • *Notre Dame/Mississippi State (Women’s National Championship in Columbus)

GAME WHERE HAVING FOULS-TO-GIVE COMES BACK TO HAUNT TRAILING TEAM IN A BIG WAY

  • Loyola-Chicago/Nevada (South Regional Semifinal in Atlanta)

GAME WITH AN ANTICLIMACTIC OVERTIME – A GAME THAT SHOULD HAVE AND COULD HAVE OFFERED A THRILLING FINISH, BUT INSTEAD ALLOWED THAT THRILLING FINISH TO SLIP THROUGH ITS FINGERS AND ULTIMATELY END IN RELATIVELY ORDINARY FASHION

  • Oklahoma/Rhode Island (Midwest First Round in Pittsburgh)
  • Texas/Nevada (South First Round in Nashville)
  • Duke/Kansas (Midwest Regional Final in Omaha)

GAME THAT FEATURED A PRESSURE-PACKED SHOT RELEASED IN A TIE GAME (THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN EVEN MORE PRESSURE-PACKED UNDER THE ELAM ENDING, WHERE NO ONE GETS TO SETTLE IN FOR OVERTIME AFTER MISSING SUCH A SHOT – BUT WHERE YOU MUST INSTEAD IMMEDIATELY GET BACK TO PLAY DEFENSE FOR YOUR LIFE)

  • Oklahoma/Rhode Island (Midwest First Round in Pittsburgh)
  • Texas/Nevada (South First Round in Nashville)
  • Duke/Kansas (Midwest Regional Final in Omaha)
  • *Notre Dame/Mississippi State (Women’s National Championship in Columbus)

COMPETITIVE GAME WITH A FORGETTABLE FINAL PLAY (THAT WOULD HAVE HAD A THRILLING SUDDEN-DEATH FINISH UNDER THE ELAM ENDING)

  • Syracuse/Arizona State (Midwest First Four in Dayton)
  • Oklahoma/Rhode Island (Midwest First Round in Pittsburgh)
  • North Carolina-Greensboro/Gonzaga (West First Round in Boise)
  • Loyola-Chicago/Miami (South First Round in Dallas)
  • San Diego State/Houston (West First Round in Wichita)
  • Texas/Nevada (South First Round in Nashville)
  • Loyola-Chicago/Tennessee (South Second Round in Dallas)
  • Loyola-Chicago/Nevada (South Regional Semifinal in Atlanta)
  • Duke/Kansas (Midwest Regional Final in Omaha)
  • *Notre Dame/Mississippi State (Women’s National Championship in Columbus)

COMPETITIVE GAME WITH A MEMORABLE FINAL PLAY (THAT WOULD HAVE ALSO HAD A THRILLING SUDDEN-DEATH FINISH UNDER THE ELAM ENDING)

  • Houston/Michigan (West Second Round in Wichita)

COMPLETE AND UTTER SLOP (EVEN BY CURRENT-FORMAT STANDARDS) IN THE CLOSING SECONDS

  • Syracuse/Michigan State (Midwest Second Round in Detroit)

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 62 nationally-televised NBA games played March 12, 2018 – April 11, 2018 (three of these games proceeded to overtime – including one game that proceeded to double overtime – so 66 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered), and each of the 67 NCAA Tournament men’s games (three of these games proceeded to overtime, so 70 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 26 of the 66 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods, and trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 44 of the 70 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods (in two instances, trailing NCAA teams committed a deliberate foul before a leading team inbounds pass, 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 23 (88.5%) 33 (75.0%)
Futile 1 (3.8%) 8 (18.2%)
Partially Successful 1 (3.8%) 1 (2.3%)
Completely Successful 1 (3.8%) 2 (4.5%)

STALLING
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 66 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. Only two (3.0%) of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods was truly stalling-free:

  • March 14 (OT): Wizards at Celtics
  • March 16: Heat at Lakers

None of the 70 sampled NCAA 2nd half/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. Six 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 ten 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):

  • March 14 (4Q): Celtics’ Marcus Morris misses three-quarter-court heave off backboard vs. Wizards
  • March 14 (OT): Wizards’ Markieff Morris’ fullcourt heave sails far over backboard at Celtics
  • March 14 (2OT): Time expires before rebound secured of Celtics’ Jayson Tatum’s missed three-pointer vs. Wizards
  • March 16: Lakers’ Isaiah Thomas misses stepback mid-range two-point jumper off side of rim vs. Heat
  • March 20: Thunder’s Russell Westbrook misses three-pointer off front of rim at Celtics
  • March 21: Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan airballs running three-pointer at Cavaliers
  • March 28: Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell misses catch-and-shoot three-pointer from hash mark off backboard vs. Celtics
  • April 3: Time expires before Spurs’ Patty Mills can attempt three-quarter-court heave at Clippers
  • April 4 (4Q): Lakers’ Josh Hart misses driving lay-up vs. Spurs
  • April 11 (4Q): Timberwolves’ Jamal Crawford airballs catch-and-shoot turnaround three-pointer from hash mark vs. Nuggets

12 of the sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only one (8.3%) of those possessions was converted (on 0.25 points per possession):

  • March 15 (2H): Rhode Island’s Stanford Robinson misses tip-in off backboard and rim vs. Oklahoma (Midwest First Round in Pittsburgh)
  • March 15: Miami’s Sam Waardenburg’s fullcourt inbounds pass tipped away vs. Loyola-Chicago (South First Round in Dallas)
  • March 15: San Diego State’s Trey Kell misses catch-and-shoot twisting three-pointer off backboard and rim vs. Houston (West First Round in Wichita)
  • March 16 (2H): Nevada’s Caleb Martin airballs catch-and-shoot turnaround three-pointer vs. Texas (South First Round in Nashville)
  • March 17: Tennessee’s Jordan Bone misses pull-up three-pointer off back of rim vs. Loyola-Chicago (South Second Round in Dallas)
  • March 17: Florida’s KeVaughn Allen misses three-pointer vs. Texas Tech (East Second Round in Dallas)
  • March 17: Michigan’s Jordan Poole makes deep three-pointer vs. Houston (West Second Round in Wichita)
  • March 18: Butler’s Kamar Baldwin misses running halfcourt shot vs. Purdue (East Second Round in Detroit)
  • March 18: Michigan State’s Cassius Winston misses halfcourt shot high off backboard vs. Syracuse (Midwest Second Round in Detroit)
  • March 18: Cincinnati’s Cane Broome’s short jumper blocked by Nevada’s Caleb Martin (South Second Round in Nashville)
  • March 22: Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander misses three-pointer off backboard and rim vs. Kansas State (South Regional Semifinal in Atlanta)
  • March 25 (2H): Duke’s Grayson Allen misses mid-range jumper off backboard and rim vs. Kansas (Midwest Regional Final in Omaha)

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 five of 30 (16.7%) such possessions (on 0.77 points per possession), and NCAA teams converted only seven of 32 (21.9%) such possessions (on 0.625 points per possession).

CONCEDING
Trailing NBA teams conceded 46 of 62 sampled games (74.2%) 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 five instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

Trailing NCAA teams conceded 42 of 67 sampled games (62.7%) 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 five 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 66 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included 15 clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including:

  • March 20: after Trailblazers committed deliberate foul vs. Rockets as time expired, an especially anticlimactic review restored 1.3 seconds to the game clock

The final four minutes of all 70 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included 17 clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including:

  • March 15 Loyola-Chicago vs. Miami (South First Round in Dallas): after Loyola-Chicago made apparent game-winning shot at buzzer, a clock review dampened the excitement, restoring 0.3 seconds to the game clock, followed by two additional timeouts and one feeble buzzer-beater attempt by Miami
  • March 16 Marshall vs. Wichita State (East First Round in San Diego): three clock reviews contributed to a final minute of game time which lasted over 18 minutes in actual time

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

  • March 14 (4Q) Wizards at Celtics: 16:21 (five made field goals)
  • March 19 Bucks at Cavaliers: 13:53 (2)
  • April 3 Spurs at Clippers: 16:20 (3)
  • April 11 (OT) Nuggets at Timberwolves: 12:21 (0)

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

  • March 15 Alabama vs. Virginia Tech (East First Round in Pittsburgh): 14:04 (4)
  • March 16 Marshall vs. Wichita State (East First Round in San Diego): 18:26 (2)
  • March 18 Syracuse vs. Michigan State (Midwest Second Round in Detroit): 12:09 (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 62 sampled NBA games and 67 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways…

NBA NCAA
Meaningful Made Basket 0 (0.0%) 1 (1.5%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession 6 (9.7%) 8 (11.9%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt 12 (19.4%) 14 (20.9%)
Leading Player Stalls 39 (62.9%) 40 (59.7%)
Trailing Player Stalls 5 (8.1%) 4 (6.0%)

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)

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: 2, including:
    • April 4: Spurs did not have possession within three points of lead for final 4:07 of overtime, en route to ten-point loss at Lakers
  • Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 2
  • Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0

Three overtime periods were 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: 3
  • 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 five uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least 12 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 unsuccessful once, and ultimately unsuccessful both times. No leading NBA team employed the strategy during sampled games.

No 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:

  • April 1: Lakers’ first deliberate foul did not send Kings to the free throw line; did not even bother with attempting to foul on ensuing inbounds pass with 0.2 seconds remaining, conceding the game instead while trailing by one point

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 six periods, including:

  • March 22: Nevada’s first two deliberate fouls did not send Loyola-Chicago to the line; time expired before Nevada could commit third deliberate foul, and lost by one point – the ultimate fouls-to-give disadvantage! (South Regional Semifinal in Atlanta)

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.

FOULOUTS
During sampled games, 16 NCAA players committed a fifth foul deliberately and/or in overtime, including the following seniors whose college career ended in such unceremonious fashion:

  • March 15: Davidson’s Rusty Reigel, vs. Kentucky (South First Round in Boise)
  • March 16: Virginia’s Isaiah Wilkins, vs. UMBC (South First Round in Charlotte)
  • March 18: UMBC’s Jourdan Grant, vs. Kansas State (South Second Round in Charlotte)

ROLLED INBOUNDS PASSES
During sampled games, trailing NCAA offenses rolled at least 29 inbounds passes in an effort to conserve time, including in the following eyebrow-raising situations:

  • March 14: North Carolina Central, trailing by 21 points with 1:16 remaining, vs. Texas Southern (West First Four in Dayton)
  • March 18: Auburn, trailing by 32 points with 2:17 remaining, vs. Clemson (Midwest Second Round in San Diego)
  • March 24: Kansas State, trailing by 16 points with 34.6 seconds remaining, vs. Loyola-Chicago (South Regional Final in Atlanta)

VACATING THE FREE THROW LANE
During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses vacated the foul lane in 70 instances during the last free throw attempt of a trip, for fear of committing a clock-stopping foul during a rebound attempt.

LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!

  • March 18 Florida State vs. Xavier (West Second Round in Nashville): After late Xavier turnover, at least three Florida State players ran from the bench onto the court before time expired, but Xavier had curiously conceded the game (trailing by just five points!) and officials did not address
  • March 23 Texas Tech vs. Purdue (East Regional Semifinal in Boston): Fans booed loudly when Purdue fouled deliberately while trailing by 14 points with 44.1 seconds remaining; Purdue conceded the game by electing not to foul on the next possession
  • March 24 Florida State vs. Michigan (West Regional Final in Los Angeles): Florida State conceded the game by electing not to foul while trailing by four points with approximately 11 seconds remaining, which led to a great deal of unwanted attention for Florida State Head Coach Leonard Hamilton