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The take foul is ruining late-game excitement. It’s time for the NBA to make a change

Written by on May 15, 2024

On Monday night, Oklahoma City Thunder center Chet Holmgren knocked down two free throws with 9.4 seconds remaining in Game 4 against the Dallas Mavericks. They were huge makes, bringing the Thunder closer to evening the series.

The Mavericks had no timeouts left. They had to rush up the court to get themselves back in the game. At that point, fans should have been wondering if they were about to witness a signature playoff moment. Would Luka Dončić shake off a rough night and lift his team? Would Kyrie Irving add to his formidable highlight reel of awesome playoff moments? Would Shai Gilgeous-Alexander strip someone in the backcourt, wrapping up a huge night for him? Would Holmgren come charging out to the 3-point arc off a switch and send a shot into the Dallas night?

Instead, as the Mavericks moved the ball around to create a good look, Gilgeous-Alexander intentionally fouled P.J. Washington. The Thunder were leading by three points. It was the right move. Giving up a maximum of two points when leading by three made sense with so little time remaining. The Dallas forward split a pair of free throws with 3.2 seconds left, Gilgeous-Alexander hit both of his at the other end and that was that. Thunder win.

Pretty anticlimactic, no?


(Tim Heitman / Getty Images)

Casual NBA viewers often criticize the ends of games for taking too long. Those complaints are justified, and the league has addressed them in part. Before the 2017-18 season, the NBA changed its rules to limit teams to two timeouts in the final three minutes of games instead of three timeouts in the final two minutes, as it had been previously.

Well, here’s another problem: In the situation the Thunder faced Monday night, teams are not encouraged to defend without fouling. Free throws are among the least interesting and most time-consuming parts of basketball, and the nature of the rule is leading to more of them, not fewer. Worst of all, it is robbing viewers of potentially iconic moments.

Let’s change the rules, then. Here are two proposals.

1. If your opponent is in the bonus and you are winning by three points or more and you foul your opponent beyond the 3-point arc, your opponent gets three free throws.

2. In the same scenario, there is an extension of the current “take foul” rule, with the trailing/fouled team getting an automatic free throw and possession. This is my preferred option.

It might seem counter-intuitive to use the threat of more free throws to cut down on the number of free throws late in a game, but the free throw is the most efficient shot in the game. In the first proposal, a team would give the opponent a chance to tie the game at the free-throw line. In the second, it could set up a scenario in which the opponent could win with a made free throw followed by a made 3 (or tying it with a made free throw and a 2). No team is going to pursue those options purposefully.

There are potential loopholes, which I will get to in a moment. The current rules encourage players and coaches to consider three scenarios that all defy the spirit of the game.

1. Prioritizing fouling over playing defense without fouling. It makes for an interesting philosophical debate, but anything that moves away from settling the game while the clock is running is not optimal.

2. If the trailing team thinks an opponent is trying to foul, its players might try to rise up for an unnatural shot while the leading team attempts to deploy the strategy. That is just another way of trying to bait the referees into a foul call with unnatural shot attempts, an activity the league is actively trying to curb.

3. If, when trailing by three in the final seconds, a player hits the first of two free throws, he is then encouraged to try to miss the next one in a way that maximizes the possibility of an offensive rebound that produces another field goal attempt. Why do we have a system that promotes missing a shot on purpose? (On Monday, Washington missed the first free throw. Instead of trying to miss the second one to generate an offensive rebound and potential game-tying 3-point attempt, he made it.)

There are counters here, and I am not claiming that either of the above proposals would be a perfect solution. Most notably, teams have 47 minutes and 36 seconds to avoid trailing by three points with the shot clock turned off. Speaking of free throws, the Mavericks missed 11 of their 23 attempts on Monday. The Thunder fouling Washington was not the primary reason Dallas lost.

Additionally, what about the team that is leading? That team is intentionally fouled more often than the trailing team to extend the competitive portion of the game. Well, the second part of that sentence is the crucial bit, isn’t it? I have no problem with a rule that applies to one team but not the other given the specificity of the scenario.

Finally, such a rule could encourage another type of grifting: a player for the trailing team creating unnatural contact to obtain the advantage afforded by yet another rule designed to help the team with the ball. That would just be exchanging one form of grifting for another, though. It is not a net gain in referee deception.

There would naturally be other unintended consequences of any such rule change. I’m all for sniffing them out and trying to make the best rule possible. What I do know: Every basketball fan has a few buzzer-beating or last-second shots they will never forget. If anyone has a similar list of “best uses of a take foul to maintain a lead,” I’ve yet to meet them. I don’t really want to, either.

(Top Photo of Luka Dončić after a late-game foul: Tim Heitman / Getty Images)

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