BAD TIMING: TOO MANY GAMES GOING OUT LIKE A LAMB (WHEN THEY COULD EASILY GO OUT LIKE A LION)

January 18, 2018
Nicholas Patrick, Ph.D.

Imagine the December 12 Lakers at Knicks game played under the hybrid duration format described here. Under this format, with the target score set at 102 (given that the Knicks led 95-92 at the time of the first timeout/dead ball/made basket under 3:00), this game would have treated us to a tight battle all the way up to a 101-101 sudden-death situation, a missed chance to win the game by the Lakers on offense, and finally a walk-off underneath lay-up by the Knicks’ Doug McDermott.

Instead, to finish an anticlimactic overtime during which the Lakers were not within striking distance (having possession, trailing by three points or fewer) of the Knicks for the final 2:00+, this game ended with an excruciating whimper. After Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made a putback to close the Lakers’ deficit to 111-109 with 1.6 seconds remaining, the next 6+ actual minutes crawled to the finish line in the following way:

  • Knicks call timeout to advance the ball to the frontcourt
  • Lakers commit a deliberate foul with 0.9 seconds remaining (which happened to be a foul-to-give)
  • Lakers commit another deliberate foul as time expires
  • Officials conduct a clock review, and restore 0.6 seconds after determining that the clock continued to run after the Lakers committed the foul
  • Knicks make both free throws to extend lead to 113-109
  • Lakers call timeout to advance the ball to the frontcourt
    • Knicks’ Jarrett Jack reacted pricelessly to this timeout, walking slowly back to his bench with his hands raised in the air as if to say “Really? Can we just go home?”
    • Jack wasn’t alone – the broadcasters also grumbled about the timeout, and many fans had already left by this point
  • Lakers miss meaningless three-pointer (with no Knicks player even attempting to defend)

The hybrid duration format would eliminate or alleviate tangible incentives for calling timeout, the practice of deliberate fouling, the fouls-to-give disadvantage, late-game clock reviews, four-point leads that feel insurmountable, and highly-competitive games that end with a whimper.

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 53 nationally-televised NBA games played December 11, 2017 – January 14, 2018 (four of these games proceeded to overtime – including one game that proceeded to triple overtime – so 59 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered), and each of the 73 NCAA men’s games televised live by ESPNU from December 11, 2017 – January 14, 2018 (five of these games proceeded to overtime – including one game that proceeded to double overtime – so 79 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 24 of the 59 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods (including one period where both teams resorted to deliberate fouling while trailing, for a total of 25 fouling sessions), and trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 39 of the 79 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.

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

NBA NCAA
Counterproductive 20 (80.0%) 30 (76.9%)
Futile 3 (12.0%) 8 (20.5%)
Partially Successful 0 (0.0%) 1 (2.6%)
Completely Successful 2 (8.0%) 0 (0.0%)

STALLING
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 59 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 one (1.7%) of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods was truly stalling-free:

  • January 7: Spurs at Trailblazers

One (1.3%) of the 79 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods was truly stalling-free:

  • December 22: Davidson vs. New Mexico (Diamond Head Classic Quarterfinal in Honolulu)

In seven instances, a leading NBA team willingly accepted a shot clock violation while stalling in the closing seconds. No leading NCAA team 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 12 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):

  • December 12 (4Q): Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis misses contested long three-pointer off back of rim vs. Lakers
  • December 12 (4Q): Time expires before 76ers’ Joel Embiid can attempt full-court heave at Timberwolves
  • December 15 (4Q): Time expires before Thunder’s Russell Westbrook can gather offensive rebound for putback at 76ers
  • December 15 (OT): Time expires before Thunder’s Russell Westbrook can attempt full-court heave at 76ers
  • December 15 (2OT): Time expires before 76ers’ Robert Covington’s long inbounds pass can be controlled vs. Thunder
  • December 15 (3OT): Time expires before 76ers’ Robert Covington can attempt three-quarter-court heave vs. Thunder
  • December 18: Pacers’ Darren Collison misses one-handed halfcourt shot off back of rim vs. Celtics
  • December 18 (4Q): Lakers’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope airballs pull-up transition three-pointer vs. Warriors
  • December 18 (OT): Time expires before Lakers’ Brandon Ingram can attempt retreating long three-pointer vs. Warriors
  • December 19: Cavaliers’ LeBron James airballs full-court heave at Bucks
  • December 28: Rockets’ Eric Gordon gathers defensive rebound and in same motion misses three-quarter-court heave off edge of backboard at Celtics
  • January 7: Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge misses long two-point jumper off backboard at Trailblazers

13 of the sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only one of those possessions was converted (on 0.15 points per possession):

  • December 20: Albany’s Devonte Campbell misses three-pointer off back of rim at Louisville
  • December 22: Princeton’s Myles Stephens misses halfcourt shot wide of rim vs. Middle Tennessee (Diamond Head Classic Quarterfinal in Honolulu)
  • December 22: Davidson’s Peyton Aldridge misses stepback long three-pointer off front of rim vs. New Mexico (Diamond Head Classic Quarterfinal in Honolulu)
  • December 30 (2H): Time expires before Saint Mary’s Jock Landale can attempt full-court heave vs. Brigham Young
  • December 30: Temple’s Shizz Alston Jr. airballs corner three-pointer at Houston
  • January 1 (2H): Iowa State’s Nick Weiler-Babb jumps, spins, gathers offensive rebound, and misses mid-range shot all in one motion vs. Texas
  • January 4: SMU’s Ben Emelogu II misses catch-and-shoot three-quarter-court heave wide of backboard at Tulane
  • January 6 (2H): Iowa State’s Donovan Jackson airballs running one-handed jumper at Oklahoma State
  • January 7: Utah’s Tyler Rawson’s full-court heave lands well wide of basket vs. Arizona State
  • January 10 (2H): Texas’ Matt Coleman gathers loose ball, spins, and misses three-pointer off front of rim in one motion vs. TCU
  • January 10 (OT): TCU’s Vladimir Brodziansky makes mid-range jumper at Texas
  • January 13 (2H): Oklahoma’s Trae Young’s three-quarter-court heave sails over backboard vs. TCU
  • January 13: Tulsa’s Sterling Taplin misses catch-and-shoot three-pointer vs. Wichita State

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 24 (16.7%) such possessions (on 0.50 points per possession), and NCAA teams converted only nine of 29 (31.0%) such possessions (on 0.69 points per possession).

CONCEDING
Trailing NBA teams conceded 43 of 53 sampled games (81.1%) 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 three instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

Trailing NCAA teams conceded 57 of 73 sampled games (78.1%) 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 four 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 59 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included six clock reviews/errors/malfunctions.

The final four minutes of all 79 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included 16 clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including:

  • January 6 (2H) Iowa State at Oklahoma State: after a four-minute review, officials declared the 2nd half over (even with 1.4 seconds displayed on the clock), because clock failed to start for about three seconds following Iowa State inbounds pass that began with 4.3 seconds remaining
  • January 9 Boise State at Fresno State: a clock error went totally unaddressed, when the clock ran for nearly two full seconds (from approximately 8.0 to 6.0) after Fresno State committed deliberate foul
  • January 13 (OT) TCU at Oklahoma: a five-minute review reset the game clock from 1:10 to 1:15 after the clock started prematurely on a TCU rolled inbounds pass…even though clock displayed 1:13 when the pass was made???

INTERMINABLE FINAL STAGES
The final minute of five NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer.

The final minute of four NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer.

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 53 sampled NBA games and 73 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways…

NBA NCAA
Meaningful Made Basket 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession 6 (11.3%) 7 (9.6%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt 8 (15.1%) 8 (11.0%)
Leading Player Stalls 31 (58.5%) 56 (76.7%)
Trailing Player Stalls 8 (15.1%) 2 (2.7%)

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)

Six 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
  • Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 4
  • Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0

Six 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: 5
  • 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: 1

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 ten uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least eight uncontested field goals 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!

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.

FOULOUTS
During sampled games, three NBA players committed a sixth foul deliberately and/or in overtime. 14 NCAA players committed a fifth foul deliberately and/or in overtime.

ROLLED INBOUNDS PASSES
During sampled games, trailing NCAA offenses rolled at least 42 inbounds passes in an effort to conserve time (in one additional instance, a team rolled an inbounds pass while tied), including in the following eyebrow-raising situations:

  • December 19: Dartmouth, trailing by 13 points with 19.5 seconds remaining, at Notre Dame
  • December 27: Chicago State, trailing by 13 points with 23.8 seconds remaining, at Wisconsin
  • January 10 (2H): TCU, trailing by one point with 2:00 remaining and the clock running, at Texas
  • January 10 (2H): TCU, trailing by four points with 1:00 remaining and the clock running, at Texas
  • January 11: Tulsa, trailing by 33 points with 20.4 seconds remaining, at Houston
  • January 13: San Francisco, trailing by ten points with 10.9 seconds remaining, vs. Gonzaga

VACATING THE FREE THROW LANE
During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses vacated the foul lane in 49 instances during the last free throw attempt of a trip, for fear of committing a clock-stopping foul during a rebound attempt. Curiously, Texas also vacated the lane while trailing in four different instances during the last 2:33 of overtime vs. TCU

LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!

  • January 4 Ohio State at Iowa: Officials initially intended to review an out-of-bounds call (off Iowa) with Iowa trailing by 11 points with 0.5 seconds remaining; as an official walked past the Iowa bench toward the scorers’ table, Iowa Head Coach Fran McCaffery appeared to talk him out of conducting the review, and everyone played on