June 13, 2017
Nick Elam, Ph.D.

The NBA Playoffs feature 15 series each year. Each series victory is worthy of a citywide celebration off the court. Ideally, each series victory would be sealed on the court with a memorable moment worthy of the accomplishment. Instead, playoff series usually end with a forgettable whimper, with players focusing mainly on getting their handshakes just right.

The 2017 series ended in the following ways:


  • Cavaliers vs. Pacers (Game 4): Pacers’ Thaddeus Young gathers defensive rebound of missed free throw, makes no attempt to advance ball or shoot full-court heave
  • Warriors vs. Trailblazers (Game 4): Warriors’ Ian Clark dribbles out clock while unguarded in frontcourt
  • Rockets vs. Thunders (Game 5): Rockets’ James Harden gathers defensive rebound with less than a second remaining after Thunder’s Alex Abrines’ meaningless halfcourt shot slams off backboard
  • Raptors vs. Bucks (Game 6): Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan throws ball straight into air to exhaust final seconds
  • Spurs vs. Grizzlies (Game 6): Spurs’ Danny Green gathers defensive rebound just as time expires following Grizzlies’ Mike Conley’s meaningless missed deep three-pointer
  • Wizards vs. Hawks (Game 6): Wizards’ Bojan Bogdanovic dribbles out clock while unguarded in frontcourt
  • Celtics vs. Bulls (Game 6): Celtics’ Terry Rozier dribbles out clock while unguarded in frontcourt
  • Jazz vs. Clippers (Game 7): Jazz’s Boris Diaw leaves ball unattended in backcourt


  • Cavaliers vs. Raptors (Game 4): Cavaliers’ LeBron James dribbles out clock while unguarded in frontcourt
  • Warriors vs. Jazz (Game 4): Warriors’ James Michael McAdoo holds ball while unguarded in frontcourt
  • Spurs vs. Rockets (Game 6): Time expires before Rockets’ Troy Williams can attempt meaningless halfcourt shot
  • Celtics vs. Wizards (Game 7): Celtics’ Terry Rozier gathers defensive rebound of Wizards’ Sheldon McClellan’s meaningless missed three-pointer


  • Warriors vs. Spurs (Game 4): Warriors’ Damian Jones drops ball at feet of referee while unguarded in frontcourt
  • Cavaliers vs. Celtics (Game 5): Cavaliers’ Richard Jefferson holds ball while guarded halfheartedly in frontcourt


  • Warriors vs. Cavaliers (Game 5): ??? (ABC did not bother to show final 3.4 seconds of play)

The clinching moment of each of these series will surely fade from memory soon, if they haven’t already. If the NBA were to adopt the hybrid duration format (Elam Ending) discussed here, every playoff series would be sealed with a memorable dunk, lay-up, jumper, free throw, etc. These moments would be significantly more enjoyable at the time they happen, and infinitely more enjoyable as we reflect back on them – which is to say, we’ll remember them at all.

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 79 games played during the 2017 NBA Playoffs (three of these games proceeded to overtime, so 82 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 teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 26 of the 82 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods.

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

Counterproductive 23* (88.5%)
Futile 3 (11.5%)
Partially Successful 0 (0.0%)
Completely Successful 0 (0.0%)

*includes two instances (Western Conference First Round Game 1: Clippers vs. Jazz; Western Conference First Round Game 4 OT: Spurs at Grizzlies) where fouling team tied the game, but then fell behind again and lost in the same period

Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 82 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 (2.4%) of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods were truly stalling-free:

  • Western Conference First Round Game 4 (4Q): Grizzlies vs. Spurs
  • Eastern Conference Finals Game 3: Celtics at Cavaliers

In nine instances, a leading 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/overtime period.

Consider that 11 of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only one of those possessions (9.1%) was converted (on 0.27 points per possession):

  • Eastern Conference First Round Game 1: Pacers’ CJ Miles misses double-pump long two-point jumper off side of rim at Cavaliers
  • Western Conference First Round Game 1: Jazz’s Joe Johnson makes driving floater vs. Clippers
  • Western Conference First Round Game 3: Rockets’ James Harden misses three-pointer off front of rim at Thunder
  • Western Conference First Round Game 4 (4Q): Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard airballs long two-point jumper at Grizzlies
  • Western Conference First Round Game 4 (OT): Spurs’ Danny Green’s three-quarter-court heave lands wide of basket at Grizzlies
  • Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 2 (4Q): Wizards’ Bradley Beal airballs fadeaway mid-range jumper at Celtics
  • Western Conference Semifinals Game 5 (4Q): Time expires before Spurs’ Patty Mills can attempt double-pump three-pointer vs. Rockets
  • Western Conference Semifinals Game 5 (OT): Rockets’ James Harden’s three-pointer blocked by Spurs’ Manu Ginobili
  • Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 6: Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas misses three-pointer from hash mark off backboard and rim at Wizards
  • Western Conference Finals Game 1: Time expires before Spurs’ Patty Mills’ intentionally missed free throw can be rebounded at Warriors
  • Eastern Conference Finals Game 3: Time expires before Cavaliers can attempt full-court heave vs. Celtics

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), teams still converted only seven of 27 (25.9%) such possessions (on 0.93 points per possession).

Trailing teams conceded 63 of 79 sampled games (79.7%) 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.

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

The final three minutes of all 79 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods included five clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including:

  • Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 6: With Celtics trailing 92-91 with possession at Wizards, officials whistled Wizards for a non-shooting foul with 2.7 seconds remaining. However, the clock continued to run to 1.7, saddling Celtics with an especially difficult (and ultimately unsuccessful) ensuing inbounds play to end the game. The error went unreviewed and unaddressed at the time, and the league acknowledged the error after the game.

The final minute of ten 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer, including the following noteworthy instances:

  • Eastern Conference First Round Game 2: Cavaliers vs. Pacers: 13 actual minutes (3 made field goals)
  • Western Conference First Round Game 3: Clippers at Jazz: 15 (2)
  • Western Conference First Round Game 5: Jazz at Clippers: 15 (2)
  • Eastern Conference First Round Game 6: Raptors at Bucks: 15 (3)

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 79 sampled games ended in the following ways…

Meaningful Made Basket 1 (1.3%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession 7 (8.9%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt 10 (12.7%)
Leading Player Stalls 48 (60.8%)
Trailing Player Stalls 13 (16.5%)

*Western Conference First Round Game 1: Jazz vs. Clippers, which ended with a made basket released in a tie game – so if the shot had been missed, the game would have proceeded to overtime. A hybrid format would not only lead to an endless supply of games that end with a meaningful made basket, but also with such shots made under greater pressure. After all, if a player misses a potential game-clinching shot in a tie game under a hybrid format, he and his teammates don’t get to settle in for overtime – he and his teammates must race back on defense to avoid losing on the very next possession.

Let’s now consider all 4th quarter/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)

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

  • Ending of overtime period failed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 1
  • 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

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

Leading teams allowed at least 15 uncontested field goals during sampled games.

During the final three minutes of sampled 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!

During sampled games, five players committed a sixth foul deliberately and/or in overtime.