Dwyane Wade, paying tribute to Parkland shooting victim Joaquin Oliver, hit the game-winning shot last night in the Miami Heat’s 102-101 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. He scored 15 of Miami’s 17 final points (and assisted on the other bucket). But it was a foul he made that actually won the Heat the game.
The score was tied at 100 with 27 seconds left after Wade sank three free throws. Then Wade did something unusual: He intentionally fouled Ben Simmons with the score tied in the final half-minute.
It worked out. Simmons is having a great season and is probably going to win Rookie of the Year, but he shoots just 56.8 percent from the free throw line. He missed the first of his two free throws. Wade hit a long jumper to give Miami the lead, and the Heat survived a wide-open miss at the buzzer by J.J. Redick. The strategy worked!
It’s not the first time a team has exploited Ben Simmons’s free-throw weakness this season. In November, the Wizards fouled Simmons 12 times in the fourth quarter as they attempted to claw back from a 12-point deficit. It worked: Simmons went 12-for-24 from the line in the fourth quarter, and the Wiz cut the deficit to five points. (The Sixers held on to win, 118-113.)
“It’s not going to happen for that much longer,” Simmons said after the Wizards game. “I’m going to knock them down.” (He was shooting 56.6 percent from the line at the time, so he’s improved by 0.2 percent in the last three months.)
He was right, though: We haven’t seen many teams try the Hack-a-Ben strategy this season. But last night was different, as it was carried out not in an attempt to mount a comeback, but to win a tie game. It worked last night. Should teams try it more often?
Henry Abbott, writing at TrueHoop, explored this scenario in 2010. His reasoning was solid: By fouling with the game tied, you give the team a possibility at free points. But the fouling team also gets an extra possession—one it wouldn’t have gotten without the foul. (Abbott was writing about a scenario where the shot clock is turned off, but last night’s game wasn’t much different: There were 27 seconds left when the Sixers got the ball.)
Here’s the thing to realize: By fouling, you’re not giving them 1.5 points. You’re giving them those 1.5 points minus what they would have gotten otherwise. If you don’t foul them, in other words, they’re still going to score some of the time — and they might score a 3. Maybe, playing against the clock, they’d average quite a bit less than a typical 1.1 points per NBA possession. But still, let’s say they’re going to score 0.8 points per possession. You’re going to hand then 0.7 points with your foul, an amount even the lamest offense can make up with a single possession.
You don’t have to even get into math for it to make sense. Barring a steal, the best-case scenario for Miami at the end of last night’s game without fouling was getting the ball, tied, with a few seconds left. The worst-case scenario was the Sixers hitting a three with a few seconds left. By fouling, Miami made sure the worst-case scenario was being down two points and basically getting a full possession. If Simmons had hit both his free throws, Miami was still free to go for the win by attempting a three.
If you actually want to get into the math, Abbott writes that analytics guys have been telling teams to foul in scenarios like this for a while now. College basketball stats king Ken Pomeroy did a three-part series on the subject two years ago. And teams in Europe tend to foul in this scenario.
Or you could just watch last night’s game: It might not always work—and not every team has a foul shooter as bad as Ben Simmons—but it worked for the Heat. And if something like this catches on, NBA endgame scenarios could end up being very different.