Much attention was paid to what followed this Roy Hibbert foul. Dwyane Wade didn’t like it. Danny Granger got in Wade’s face. A technical was called. Hubie admonished Danny. A rich debate over Granger’s faketoughguyness was held in the Twitter high court.
But I was more fixated on the foul itself than on the ensuing drama. Wade blew past Hibbert, and the center reacted by intentionally hacking. The idea was to not cede an easy bucket, to make Wade “earn it at the line.” Dwyane did miss one of two, so mission accomplished, right?
Not so fast. To quote Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated:
“Simultaneous foul trouble to power forward David West and center Roy Hibbert made the Pacers easier to guard on offense and far less intimidating on defense. Those foul issues also forced coach Frank Vogel to deal with several rotation-related dilemmas at once, including how long to sit his big men and whether/when he should use a small lineup with only one of the Tyler Hansbrough/Lou Amundson backup duo that has been shaky all season.”
Before that hack, Roy Hibbert had gone nearly a whole half while accruing only one foul. The Heat had and have no answer for him. So long as he stays on the court, Miami appears at a disadvantage. So is getting 1/6 of the way fouled out worth the chance that Dwyane Wade misses a free throw? Hibbert picked up a quick two fouls in the third quarter, which sent him to the bench. When Hibbert finally came back in the fourth quarter, he appeared tentative on plays at the rim, perhaps fearing ignominious disqualification. What if he had been playing with three fouls instead of four?
Beckley showed you Gregg Popovich’s mundane genius for fouling when appropriate. The other side of this is that the Spurs are among the least fouling teams, year after year. Fouling is usually bad. It can take your players out of the game, it can put you closer to a penalty situation wherein the other team marches to the free throw line. If your average free throw shooter went to the line, every possession, his team’s offense would crush it at a historic 1.5 points per possession. To hack that average FT shooter is to trigger an incredibly effective offensive attack.
When you wrap up an average free thrower like Wade, you’re saving a mere .5 points on average over the sure layup. That’s if you consider the layup a sure thing, though, and I’m not so sure about that sure thing. Kenny Smith often preaches contesting the shooter with the ball, even if your team’s defense has broken down. The logical thinking is that it’s best to force this shooter to make a pass, even if it’s to a wide open player. The pass can fly out of bounds, or get mishandled. Nothing is certain. You have to wonder if a struggling D-Wade misses a chased layup 25% percent of the time. Isn’t it better to find out rather than incur a foul?
Racking up fouls to prevent a “sure thing” seems like an anti Moneyball play. Basketball teams don’t have the proper respect for the power of free throws and foul trouble, just like baseball teams once shrugged at walking their opponents. The Spurs are ahead of the curve. The Pacers, they of the 5th highest foul rate in basketball, would be wise to catch up.