The taking foul ruins the late-game excitement. It's time for the NBA to make a change

On Monday night, Oklahoma City Thunder center Chet Holmgren knocked down two free throws with 9.4 seconds left in Game 4 against the Dallas Mavericks. They were huge marks, moving the Thunder closer to series night.

The Mavericks were out of timeouts. They had to run onto the field to get back into the game. At that moment, fans should have wondered if they were about to witness a signature playoff moment. Would Luka Dončić shake off a tough night and lift his team? Would Kyrie Irving add to his formidable peak full of great playoff moments? Would Shai Gilgeous-Alexander strip someone in the backcourt and start a big night for him? Would Holmgren come rushing to the three-point arc on a switch and send a shot into Dallas' night?

Instead, as the Mavericks moved the ball around to create a good impression, Gilgeous-Alexander intentionally fouled PJ Washington. The Thunder led by three points. It was the right move. It made sense to give up a maximum of two points with a lead of three, because there was so little time left. The Dallas forward split a pair of free throws with 3.2 seconds left, Gilgeous-Alexander hit both of his on the other end and that was that. Thunder victory.

Pretty anticlimactic, right?


(Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

Casual NBA viewers often criticize that the end of games takes too long. Those complaints are valid and the league has partially addressed them. Before the 2017–18 season, the NBA changed its rules to limit teams to two timeouts in the final three minutes of games instead of three timeouts in the final two minutes as before.

Well, here's another problem: In the situation the Thunder faced Monday night, teams aren't encouraged to defend without making mistakes. Free throws are among the least interesting and most time-consuming parts of basketball, and the nature of the rule leads to more of them, not less. Worst of all, it robs viewers of potentially iconic moments.

Then let's change the rules. Here are two proposals.

1. If your opponent is in the bonus and you win by three points or more and you foul your opponent outside the three-point arc, your opponent gets three free throws.

2. In the same scenario, there is an extension of the current “take foul” rule, whereby the trailing/fouled team is automatically awarded a free throw and possession of the ball. This is my preferred option.

It may seem counterintuitive to use the threat of more free throws to reduce the number of free throws made late in a game, but the free throw is the most efficient shot in the game. In the first proposal, a team would give its opponent a chance to tie the game at the free throw line. In the second case, it could set up a scenario where the opponent could win with a made free throw followed by a made 3 (or tie with a made free throw and a 2). No team will deliberately pursue these options.

There are potential loopholes, which I'll get to in a moment. The current rules encourage players and coaches to consider three scenarios, all of which defy the spirit of the game.

1. Prioritizing committing mistakes over playing defense without mistakes. It makes for an interesting philosophical debate, but anything that deviates from settling the game while the clock is running is suboptimal.

2. If the trailing team thinks an opponent is trying to make a mistake, the players can try to stand up for an unnatural shot while the leading team tries to apply the strategy. That's just another way to trick the officials into fouling with unnatural shot attempts, an activity the league is actively trying to curb.

3. If a player, when trailing by three in the final seconds, makes the first of two free throws, he is encouraged to attempt to miss the next one in a manner that maximizes the chance of an offensive rebound that creates a new field goal. attempt. Why do we have a system that promotes missing an opportunity on purpose? (On Monday, Washington missed the first free throw. Instead of trying to miss the second to generate an offensive rebound and a potential three-point tying goal, he succeeded.)

There are counter arguments here, and I'm not claiming that any of the above proposals would be a perfect solution. Most notably, teams have 47 minutes and 36 seconds to avoid being down by three points when the shot clock is off. Speaking of free throws, the Mavericks missed 11 of their 23 attempts on Monday. The Thunder fouling Washington wasn't the main reason why Dallas lost.

And what about the team that leads? That team is intentionally fouled more often than the team behind it to prolong the competitive portion of the game. Well, the second part of that sentence is the crucial part, isn't it? I have no problem with a rule that applies to one team but not the other, given the specificity of the scenario.

Finally, such a rule could encourage a different kind of grift: a player from the trailing team making unnatural contact to gain the advantage provided by yet another rule designed to help the team with the ball. However, that would be nothing more than exchanging one form of grievance for another. There is no net gain in misleading the referee.

There would, of course, be other unintended consequences of such a rule change. I'm all for sniffing them out and trying to make the best line possible. What I do know: Every basketball fan has a few buzzer beats or last-second shots they'll never forget. If anyone has a similar list of 'the best use of a take foul to maintain an edge', I have yet to come across them. I actually don't want it either.

(Top photo of Luka Dončić after a late-game foul: Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

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