Up 3, Time Running Down: Foul Or Defend?

VIDEO: James Harden fouls Carmelo Anthony in last seconds

DALLAS — It’s an age-old (well, at least since the implementation of the 3-point arc) question that might not have a right or wrong answer: To foul or not to foul?

You’re up three, time running down. What do you do?

“The right answer is whatever ends up working out,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle prior to finding his team in the very situation in the waning seconds of their 123-120 comeback win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night.

“The thing that’s hard in this league is being able to get to a guy to foul him because end-of-game plays are very sophisticated,” Carlisle continued. “Guys are dynamically quick, they create separation and if you can’t foul a guy as he’s catching the ball, these guys will turn and shoot and if you don’t watch out you’ll be giving up a four-point play or something like that because some of these guys can turn and then go up, draw contact and still get a 3-point shot up.

“It’s challenging, it’s something you’ve got to spend time on, work on and you have to be able to have players that are mentally disciplined to lay off the foul if the guy’s in the process of turning and going up. Otherwise you’re giving him three free throws.”

That’s exactly how Mavs forward Shawn Marion played it defending James Harden. With Dallas up three and 6.7 seconds to go, Chandler Parsons inbounded to Harden several feet above the top right arc. Harden faked left and went right. Marion looked to be in the process of reaching both arms around Harden’s waist as he curled to the right, presumably to draw the foul before Harden could get up a shot. Such a foul would have resulted in Harden going to the free-throw line for two shots with little more than four seconds left.

But at the last moment, Marion yanked his arms away, demonstrably pulling them behind his back as if to emphasize that he did not touch Harden, who got up a lunging 3-pointer that didn’t draw iron. As soon as Harden saw his shot was ill-fated, he pleaded for a foul call that didn’t come.

Just a few nights earlier at New York, Harden found himself on the opposite end of a near-identical situation. Harden was guarding Carmelo Anthony on the inbounds pass with 5.8 seconds left and the Rockets protecting a 107-104 lead. Anthony got the ball above the arc at the right wing, almost the same spot where Harden got it in Dallas. Harden immediately slapped Anthony across the arms. The whislte blew and instantaneously Anthony continued his motion and as he launched a desperation 3-pointer, Harden again caught his arm. The shot remarkably went in and the Madison Square Garden crowd roared expecting a potential four-point play and an improbable win.

But the basket was emphatically waved off as the initial slap was ruled to have occurred before Anthony got off the shot. Anthony went to the line for two free throws with five seconds left. He made both, although it appeared he actually tried to miss the second to create a potential offensive rebound. Anthony was livid he didn’t get the continuation call.

“They’ve done studies and I’ve heard people tell me that the studies they did say that for sure you foul,” McHale said. “Other people have done studies that say that it doesn’t make a difference. But I do think fouling; a lot of things have got to go [right] for the offense — they’ve got to make the first free throw, they’ve got to miss the second, they’ve got to get it, they’ve got to put it back in. So I would just as soon foul.”

Yet that’s not the call McHale made in the two games prior to the great Garden escape.

On Nov. 11 at the Toyota Center, the Rockets blew a 17-point lead against Toronto and were up 95-92 in overtime. With about six seconds left, Raptors forward Rudy Gay dribbled right to the top of the arc, positioned his feet just outside the arc and drained the game-tying 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Parsons. Before that shot, Gay had been 9-for-25 from the floor, so the Rockets took their chances. Double OT. The Rockets eventually pulled out the win.

That wouldn’t be the case two nights later in Philadelphia.

This time having blown a 10-point lead, the Rockets found themselves protecting a 106-103 lead with 18.2 seconds to play. Sixers guard Tony Wroten had the ball up top, drove the lane and was shadowed by Dwight Howard under the basket. In trouble on the baseline, Wroten tossed a high-arching pass all the way out top to James Anderson. With Rockets guard Jeremy Lin draped on him, Anderson rose up and nailed the game-tying 3-pointer with 6.9 seconds to go. The Rockets failed to score on their final possession and the 76ers eventually won the game in overtime.

Rockets guard Patrick Beverley had backed off Anderson to guard against a pass to Thaddeus Young, who was stationed to Anderson’s left at the top of the arc.

“I played in Europe and they told us to foul, but it’s a different game,” Beverley said. “Hitting a 3 to send a game to overtime is a very tough shot, so I don’t know, it’s a tough question. In some situations, like when we played New York, we fouled and if they don’t call that [first] foul it’s an ‘and-1’ 3 for Carmelo.”

It’s the classic what-to-do debate with no clear-cut answer for every situation.

“Ideally, you’d like to foul,” McHale said. “But there’s a lot that goes into that — how much time’s on the clock? Are the guys catching it cleanly and going into a [shooting] motion? Are they dribbling it? So we have a lot of different things that we talk about for times that we like to foul.

“But there’s also times when things happen where they start off with maybe 13, 14 seconds and your guys have got to be in tune to understand that if they pass, pass, pass, now if it gets down to four or five [seconds], now you want to foul. But you don’t want to foul with 15 seconds left. So there’s a lot of different scenarios that we’ll keep working on and getting better at.”


  1. Marco29 says:

    And what do you do with a 5 point lead and 28 seconds remaining? Ask Pop and he’ll tell you that this is not Europe.

    • E-SY says:

      Oh you better be glad it’s not Europe… basketball is played in the NBA, nowhere else. (Message from Europe.) All sports in Europe wind up being some kind of mathematics when the game is on the line, clearly because of lack of talent.

      The discussion is fine with me, but teams or players shouldn’t start whining about last second calls or no-calls and interpretation of the refs. If you want a clear outcome of the game, dominate through four quarters and win by double digits. If you don’t, there always will be some luck involved in winning the game, so don’t complain.