There are six minutes left in the game, your trailing by eight and the other team is scoring on every possession. What do you do if you the head coach of an NBA team in this situation? You foul their worst free-throw shooter every time they in-bound the ball. Force them to beat you at the free-throw line.
Former Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson first used this strategy against Dennis Rodman, then of the Chicago Bulls, who was a terrible free-throw shooter. He would use it late in the game to take the ball out of the hands of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. It’s frustrating for a team with great scorers to watch their team’s worst shooter throw up air balls and misses, while they can’t do anything about it. Later, Nelson would use this strategy again in the late 90s against Shaquille O’Neil. A career 52% shooter from the charity stripe, the center was often seen drenched in sweat as his akward attempts at free-throws would miss the net entirely, or hit the backboard so hard the ball would return right back to his hands. The term “Hack-A-Shaq” was then invented. Teams began fouling their opponents worst free-throw shooters late in games to put them at the line.
Since then players such as Ben Wallace, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan have been involved in this late-game ritual. Coaches have had to sit some of their best defenders and shot blockers, such as the three listed above, late in games to avoid the intentional fouls and subsequent free-throws. Take the Pistons back in the early 2000s for example, Ben Wallace was a 42% free-throw shooter, so it was almost guaranteed he would be fouled. He was not just the Pistons best defender, but also earned the leagues award four times. To avoid seeing him go to the line and having his shooters get cold, Coach Larry Brown would sit Wallace in the final minutes. For the opponent, they could be more aggressive offensively without him on the floor, but they also were not going to intentionally foul Rip Hamiliton or Chauncey Billups, two automatics from the line.
Last night in game two of the Western Conference Semifinals between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers, I watched as the Rockets started to intentionally fouled DeAndre Jordan, a 41% career free-throw shooter. The Clippers matched that by intentionally fouling Dwight Howard, a career 57% free-throw shooter. Jordan went 4-6 and Howard 8-21 from the line. Yes, that is correct, Dwight Howard took 21 shots from the free-throw line and only made 8. The Rockets went on to win the game 115-109 even with that horrific shooting, but all of those intentional fouls made the game hard to watch. There was little excitement in the game with players such as James Harden and Jason Terry walking up the floor to watch Howard brick a pair of free shots and then play defense. This fouling tactic was taking the fun out of watching a good game.
In all, the Clippers made 25 of their 32 free-throw attempts and the Rockets 42 of 64. Combined, there were 96 shots from the charity stripe. Almost 100. No wonder the game took two hours and fifty-eight minutes. It was an exciting game up until the Hack-A-Jordan turned into the Hack-A-Howard and the game took a Hack-A-My-Night.
Fortunately there is a rule in place in the NBA guidelines, Section X of Rule 12, that during the final two minutes of regulation or overtime, all personal fouls away from the ball will result in a free-throws for the fouled team, however they may be taken by any player in the game. So Howard and Jordan were free to play the entire two final minutes of the game. If they were intentionally fouled, their teammates could head to the line for them. This rule was the only saving grace this game had. The final minutes were good basketball again. It was just the previous four that dragged on.
The NBA has reported that their competition committee will likely change this intentional foul rule to further penalize teams from using this strategy. Sources say that the there is an 85% chance of it being passed and implicated for the start of the next season. David Blatt, head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, says there is no such thing as Hack-A-Shaq overseas, and this strategy would be considered unsportsmanlike.
It doesn’t happen in every game, luckily, and not every team features a big man that is that bad at shooting, but when it does occur, it is painful to watch. Howard is a tremendous athlete but even when he made 8 of his free throws, he looked out of sorts. For his 13 misses, he looked not just uncomfortable at the line, he didn’t even look athletic releasing the ball. It’s a shame when fans spend the final quarter of a playoff game watching the stats walk up the court without touching the ball. Hopefully the NBA gets this rule right for next season, because the next time I see a Hack-A-Whoever, I’m going to Hack-A-Remote across the room and go to bed.
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