Commentary

Not fouling was the right choice

Originally Published: June 13, 2009
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Stan Van GundyNathaniel S. Butler/Getty ImagesDid Van Gundy make the right decision by not fouling in the closing seconds of the fourth in Game 4?

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Readers have heard me say it countless times -- foul when you're up by three points in the final seconds. Orlando didn't do it in the final seconds on Friday, and it cost them ...

Or did it?

With 11 seconds left, there was more time left than the typical "foul when you're up three" situation, especially since the Lakers still had a timeout and could advance the ball if they so chose after Orlando free throws.

That meant that an Orlando foul in the first second or two would have still left plenty of time for the Lakers to foul and come right back again; Orlando likely would have had to run through the sequence three times. In other words, it would have turned into a free-throw competition, and I can understand the Magic not liking their odds in that scenario.

Presumably, the foul shooters of choice would have been Kobe Bryant for L.A. (who was, in fact, the first player to touch it on that fateful play), and Jameer Nelson or Rashard Lewis for Orlando. Bryant shoots 84.0 percent for his career; Nelson is at 80.3 percent, and Lewis at 80.8 percent.

Using those percentages, and assuming the defense would rebound every missed free throw, here are the potential outcomes after they shoot two free throws apiece with those shooters:

Orlando up 5: 1.6 percent
Orlando up 4: 17.7
Orlando up 3: 54.6
Orlando up 2: 23.4
Orlando up 1: 2.7 percent

So the most likely scenario is that we stay on serve with the Magic up by three for Round 2 of foul-o-rama. But there's also a 1-in-4 chance that the sequence ends with the Magic up by two points or less and virtually no time off the clock ... and presumably the Lakers would be getting off a much better shot in that situation than in the more desperate one in which they need a 3 to tie. (I said "presumably" -- I know what actually happened, but these were the probabilities going into the timeout.)

If the Magic then went through a second round of foul-a-rama, they'd again be looking at the odds above, which adds another 14.3 percent to L.A.'s chance of being down two or less after the second set of Orlando free throws. They'd probably only have five or six seconds by this point and would be out of timeouts, but on the other hand a 3 would win it rather than sending it to overtime. Add the two probabilities and there's about a 40 percent chance that the Magic wouldn't have been able to maintain the three-point advantage.

On the flip side, we can point out that there's a 28 percent chance that the Magic would emerge leading by four points or more after the second round of fouls, effectively giving them a 100 percent chance of winning. But this matters less than the other scenario, because the Magic began the sequence in such a high-win-probability situation (and yes, I know what actually happened).

On a related note, a number of people commented to me that the Magic could have waited a few seconds and fouled Trevor Ariza or Derek Fisher, but this was never a realistic possibility -- nobody was close enough. If the Magic were going to foul, it had to be in the first second or two.

And the reason nobody was close enough gets to the real point where L.A. wrong-footed the Magic -- inbounding the ball full-court rather than on the side in the frontcourt. It seemed Orlando was expecting the ball to be upcourt, but Phil Jackson said that going back to his first Finals with the Bulls he found it easier in those situations to let his scoring weapon (Michael Jordan then, Bryant now) get a running start and see where the double-teams were coming from. When Orlando trapped Kobe in the backcourt and Nelson rotated slowly to Fisher, it set up L.A.'s heroics.

The other sidebar to the conversation is that Jackson seemed to indicate that he thought Orlando had a foul to give in the answers he gave after the game and again Friday. I asked him about that at Saturday's media availability and he said that wasn't the case, that he knew they'd be going to the line if Orlando fouled. (And regardless, he gets a pass since his team won and he has nine rings.)

There are a ton of things the Magic could have done in those final seconds, from not doubling Kobe in the backcourt, to putting in Courtney Lee for Nelson, to getting Nelson to actually defend the 3-point line when his team is up by three in the final seconds.

But as far as fouling intentionally to prevent the tying bucket, the combo of the clock situation and L.A.'s remaining timeout didn't make it a great percentage move. (And yes, to reiterate, I know what happened.) I'm a big advocate of fouling when up by three in late-game situations, especially when the opponent is out of timeouts, but generally you need to be in single digits on the clock to make it worthwhile. Stan Van Gundy said his own rule of thumb was six seconds, while Jackson said his was five; regardless, it sure as heck isn't 11.

So despite being one of the most vocal proponents for the foul-when-up-three strategy and routinely admonishing coaches who don't follow it, I thought Van Gundy played it correctly. There are plenty of open doors for criticism for things he did in Game 4, but eschewing the foul on L.A.'s game-tying 3-pointer wasn't one of them.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.