By: Rob Scott / @robscott33
Two games this week gave differing lessons into ‘Fouling Up Three Theology’. I use that word deliberately, as debates over this so often fall into some kind of faith in the inherent morality of ‘trusting your defence’, appeals to ‘the basketball Gods’ and ‘karma’.
There are statistical studies that go both ways, and the variables and sample sizes are so short that in the end, the simplest thing is often to choose a side based on your intrinsic view of what is ‘right’. In the the NBA, instinct seems to favour a laissez-faire approach, whereas European coaches favour collectivised state-intervention in the form of a practiced and well executed fouling strategy.
Zalgiris their own worst enemies
The final minute at PalaDesio offered in microcosm a demonstration that Zalgiris is a team that can’t seem to get out of its own way.
So many things went wrong for them at the end of a game they had done enough to win. Most were their own fault, although they finished on the wrong side of some 50/50 calls – perhaps the basketball Gods are real after all?
First, up by three, just inside three minutes to go, Robertas Javtokas was called for a harsh moving screen that negated a Popovic jumper that would have increased their cushion to five. It was the kind of call, like most moving screens, that wasn’t terrible but is let go by a lot of referees.
Still leading by one with 19 seconds on the clock, Milan Rakovic was called for an unsportsmanlike foul on Shermadini that set up the morality play of trading fouls. Rakovic was reckless in coming down hard with both his arms over the shoulders of the Georgian. Without the foul, asssuming Shermadini scored, Cantu would have led by one, and Zalgiris would have had the ball and a chance to win.
It’s easy to say from here, after the event, but Rakovic didn’t need to give the referee the chance to call an unsportsmanlike. Shermadini made both and with the shot clock off, Zalgiris had to foul to get the ball back.
Leading by three after the next pair of free throws, Cantu wanted no part of defending a possible tying three.
Twice they sent Zalgiris to the line, and so it came down to Sonny Weems standing at the stripe, down three with 5.8 on the clock. The only option was to intentionally miss and hope for a rebound. This does work sometimes, but rarely.
Weems sank the first, front rimmed the second, grabbed his own rebound and buried the short jumper to tie. 3.2 on the clock. Overtime? No, this is Zalgiris we’re talking about. Talking of borderline calls, it seems impossible to tell with the naked eye whether Weems crossed the stripe before the ball hit the rim, so we must give him the benefit of the doubt.
Cantu still had a chance to win - would it be another Basile turnaround 30 footer, like in Bilbao? The climax was an anti-climax. From the inbounds at halfcourt, Kalnietis was caught on a switch and got tangled up with Shermadini, called for the foul as the pass aimed for the Georgian sailed past them. Again, it was a 50/50 call – who made first contact? Difficult to tell, but with the pass clearly aimed for Shermadini and contact preventing both players from reaching it, it was an easy call to justify. Game over, and Zalgiris is 0-2 when it could so easily have been 2-0 and the surprise team of the round.
Sloukas Cancels out Lucas, but Jamon goes Ham
Over inIstanbul, at the end of the most raucous, best crowd of the season anywhere in Europe, Olympiacos trailed by three with Spanoulis on the line for a pair with 3 seconds remaining. Surely he would have to make the first and miss the second? According to the Turkish TV commentator, that’s what Ivkovic instructed, but he made both. There was still enough time to put Jaka Lakovic on the line, who restored the three point lead.
This brings us to the key question of the game: Galatasaray had followed orthodoxy in putting Olympiacos on the line rather than let them shoot a tying three. So should that have been followed to the nth degree with just over a second left to shoot a prayer that goes in maybe less than 15% of the time? Sloukas made an incredible shot, but he was more or less untouched, and it would not have been difficult to foul on the catch.
On both occasions, fouling up three prevented the game from being tied in ‘conventional’ scenarios. Both trailing teams overcame the odds to tie the score with plays that work only very occasionally. Neither Zalgiris nor Olympiacos would make the most of their improbable comebacks, although at least Olympiacos earned themselves a chance in overtime.
Fouling when up three is still the strategy that produced the best chance to defend that lead, and it’s likely to be used in most situations despite what we have seen this week. The moralists can also take heart from seeing that sometimes it doesn’t always remove the chance of a magical finish.