OKLAHOMA CITY – Hack-a-Shaq. The Brazilian Whacks.
By any name, it provokes an immediate and emotional reaction.
Just ask Gregg Popovich.
“I hate it. It’s ugly,” said the Spurs coach. “But it’s within the rules and so I’ll use it.”
It’s the intentional foul, basketball’s version of stomping down hard on the brake and bringing a free flowing game to an immediate halt.
Popovich employed it in the previous round of the playoffs when he sent Clippers Blake Griffin and Reggie Evans to the foul line.
Scott Brooks of the Thunder pulled it out from under the bed in the third quarter of Game 2 when he had his team foul Tiago Splitter away from the ball on five straight possessions midway through the third quarter.
Splitter made a perfect split, hitting five of 10 free throws.
The effectiveness of the tactic was debatable at best. The Thunder trailed by 16 when they started Splitter’s parade to the free throw line and trailed by 16 when he eventually pulled off the floor by Popovich. However it did interrupt the flow of the high-tempo, high-result offense by San Antonio and allowed the Thunder to gather their wits and composure.
And the outrage from the crybaby corners of the viewing public was loud and predictable.
The outrage is as wrong now as it was a decade ago when opposing coaches – Popovich among them – employed the tactic against Shaquille O’Neal.
Those who don’t like Hack-a-Shaq or El Floggo Tiago want it outlawed from the NBA strictly based on cosmetics.
They say it cheapens the game, makes it longer, slower and duller. They want fouls away from the ball to be punished by two free throws and possession any time from opening tip to the final buzzer.
I say they are wrong.
There is a simple way to deal with Hack-a-Shaq and Splat-a-Splitter: Make them pay by making your the shots.
If a player at the highest level of the highest brand of basketball on the planet wants to expose a glaring weakness to the world and doesn’t work to eliminate it, I say he and his team deserve to be victimized.
O’Neal used to complain loudly that Hack-a-Shaq was “cowardice.”
I would argue that the “courageous” path would be for Shaq or anyone else with a failing at the free throw line to acknowledge their shortcoming and spend the extra hours in the gym working on their shot. Cowards just moan and whine.
It is a strategic part of the game, just like the intentional walk in baseball. In fact, I would argue it’s not as harmful as the intentional walk, because it does not negate a player’s strength by taking the bat out of a good hitter’s hands. It is exploiting a flaw and that is what strategy is all about.
Splitter was a 69.4 percent free throw shooter during the regular season, hardly an ace, but certainly serviceable. His clip has fallen off to 37.8 percent (14 of 37) in the playoffs, perhaps the result of suffering a wrist injury in the first round against Utah.
Expect the winds of the debate to keep swirling, because the talking heads have to fill dead air and because it’s always easier to legislate away a weakness rather than work to fix it.
“I think it’s a really lousy thing to do. It’s unsportsmanlike,” cracked Popovich with a huge grin on his face. “No, it’s a good move. If there’s a reason to do it, and they felt like there was a reason to do it, and they did it. So it’s a good move.”
“If on occasion we have an opportunity to do it again, we will,” said Brooks.
And he should.
Even Splitter has no argument.
“If I don’t make it, bad for me and bad for the team,” he said. “But it’s simple.”
Stop whining and make your free throws.