After watching the end of game one of the Western Conference finals between the Nuggets and Lakers last night, I'm convinced more than ever that many (if not most) NBA analysts are idiots with little to no comprehension of sound late game strategy and clock management. In this case I will be directing my ire at Jeff Van Gundy, but I'm certain many other analysts have advocated for similar strategic errors in the past.
With 30.5 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets trailed the Lakers 101-99 and preparing to inbound the ball at midcourt. An errant pass was intercepted by the Lakers' Trevor Ariza and recovered on the Lakers' offensive side of the court with just over twenty-eight seconds to play. And so Jeff Van Gundy said essentially that since there was a four second differential between the shot and game clocks, the Nuggets did not have to foul.
I suppose Van Gundy was technically correct, the Nuggets did not have to foul. But then again, the Nuggets also did not have to try to win the game. I'm going to assume for the moment that the Nuggets were trying to win the game and lists the steps that would likely have to take place for Van Gundy's strategy to have any chance of working.
1. Nuggets do not commit any fouls (this is after all the foundation of the entire strategy).
2. Lakers do not score on the possession.
3. Nuggets rebound presumed errant Lakers shot attempt (see number 2) with 4-5 seconds remaining.
4. Nuggets successfully inbound the ball to one of their players.
5. Nuggets score basket to either tie game (2-point attempt) or take the lead (3-point attempt).
6. If time remains, Nuggets prevent Lakers from scoring and force overtime or win game.
The overwhelming flaw in this plan is that it essentially requires every step in the plan to go flawlessly if the Nuggets are going to have any chance to win. There is almost no margin for error. And the strategy is foolishly optimistic considering the fact that the Lakers have Kobe Bryant on their team, a ruthlessly attacking player who would (a) almost certainly have the ball as time wound down and (b) stood a greater than 50% of chance of scoring on the play, getting fouled on the play (Bryant being an 85+% foul shooter), or both. And then you throw in the very real possibility that the Nuggets just might not get the rebound since Bryant would likely draw help defense, potentially leaving the helping defender's man unchecked to grab the offensive rebound, and I certainly can go on.
So what did actually happen? Well, the Nuggets had a tad bit of trouble going the entire 24 second shot clock without fouling, and so ended up fouling Bryant as he drove the lane toward the basket with right around ten seconds left. So there the Nuggets were, down two points with Bryant shooting two free throws with ten seconds left where if they had fouled immediately, they could have been down two with Bryant (or even Ariza) shooting two free throws with 26-27 seconds left. And of course Bryant did hit both of the free throws to put the Lakers up 103-99 with roughly ten seconds left.
But the absurdly stupid strategy suggestions did not end with 28 seconds remaining. Van Gundy next said that the Nuggets should not necessarily attempt a three point shot when inbounding the ball, but rather should go for the best available shot. Okay, so with ten seconds left and the Nuggets down by four points, Van Gundy thought that now the Nuggets were in the right situation to start the "quick layup-quick foul-hope the guy misses at least one free throw so that we can eventually cut it to a one possession game-oh, he didn't miss, well let's start the cycle over again by taking a quick layup" strategy. This strategy is actually a decent one that can be used to prolong a game, but not when you only have ten seconds left. (It seems like the perfect strategy to employ with, oh I don't know, 28 seconds left.) Granted, with ten seconds left, there are not going to be many more times that your team finds itself with the ball. And this means that when you are down by four points, you have to score as many points as possible on each of these very few possessions. This means taking three point shots!
So the bottom line is that Chaucey Billups wisely attempted and made a three point shot (though it should not have counted since he stepped out of bounds just prior to attempting the shot), but the Nuggets did eventually come up short, losing 105-103. There's no way to know for sure if they would have won the game if using a strategy other than the asinine Van Gundy strategy (evidently adhered to by George Karl and probably a great many other NBA coaches), but they almost certainly would have given themselves a better chance.