Leading by Three With Little Time Left—To Foul or Not to Foul?

Jacob NitzbergAnalyst IApril 28, 2009

BOSTON - FEBRUARY 27:  Ray Allen #20 of the Boston Celtics takes a three point shot against the Indiana Pacers on February 27, 2009 at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.The Celtics defeated the Pacers 104-99. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Sunday's Game Four between the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics was an instant classic, with the Bulls prevailing 121-118 in double overtime. The double overtime thriller was made possible by two game-tying three pointers with under ten seconds left to play, one in regulation and one in overtime.

Both Ray Allen's and Ben Gordon's shots were incredibly clutch, but should they have even been allowed to happen? To put it another way, should the defensive team have committed a foul prior to the shot attempt to prevent the tying shot from occurring?

Looking at it from the pro-fouling standpoint, the logic is: Why even allow the shot to take place? 

With the Celtics leading by three in overtime, the in-bounds pass went to John Salmons with under ten seconds to play. If the Celtics foul Salmons, he goes to the line to shoot two.  If he makes them both, the Celtics are up one with the ball back and even less time remaining. 

Zero chance for the Bulls to tie the game with a clutch three in this scenario.

The argument against is a bit more robust.

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If the Celtics foul, and the Bulls make the first foul shot and miss the second, they could get the offensive rebound. The Bulls now have a chance to tie with a two and win with a three. 

If the Bulls make both free throws, but the Celtics are out of timeouts, and cannot get the ensuing in-bounds pass in, it would result in a turnover in the Chicago half, either via a five-second call or a bad pass.

If the Celtics do get the ball in and get fouled, they could miss their free throws, giving Chicago a chance to win or tie, albeit with less time on the clock.

Finally—every team's worst fear—is an attempt to foul prior to the shot fails, and the wild attempt goes in, giving the Bulls a chance for the tie or even the lead with the "And-1".

Ray Allen and Ben Gordon have both proved that not fouling is a dangerous choice to make, but teams continually let their opposition take the shot. There are clearly more reasons in support of not fouling rather than committing the foul, which could be why NBA teams almost always choose not to foul. 

However, all those are possible scenarios, while committing the foul prior to the shot gives an absolute result. In this writer's humble opinion, a coach needs to trust his team to make their free throws, and not give a player like Ray Allen a chance to do what he does best. 


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