Reggie Jackson has emerged as a Thunder mainstay in the wake of Russell Westbrook’s injury. But Jackson almost became a goat. With 1.6 seconds left and the Thunder up 93-90, Jackson fouled Quincy Pondexter on a 3-point shot.
Jackson got a governor’s reprieve when Pondexter missed the first foul shot. That forced Pondexter to try to make the second (which he did) but miss the second (which he did, but to no avail).
But was Jackson’s foul a bonehead play?
Memphis coach Lionel Hollins got me to thinking about it when he seemed to express regret that Pondexter was fouled.
“We ran a play for Q, and if he doesn’t get fouled, he maybe makes that three,” Hollins said.
The Grizzlies picked Derek Fisher, forcing Jackson to rotate over onto Pondexter.
“Everything worked fine,” Hollins said. “We just got fouled and didn’t make the free throws. We got the shot we wanted. Wide open shot actually. The guy had to run over and foul him.”
Hollins made me consider the math. So I looked up the numbers.
Pondexter this season is a 74.7 percent foul shooter, counting regular season and playoffs. He’s a 39.5 percent 3-point shooter.
The odds of a 39.5 percent 3-point shooter making a 3-point shot is, you guessed it, 39.5 percent.
The odds of a 74.7 percent foul shooter making all three foul shots are 41.7 percent.
So better odds letting the guy shoot.
Except consider this. Those percentages are close. Really close. Are you better off letting a guy shoot a 3-pointer, or defending him vigorously and if you foul him you foul him, knowing it’s not much of a difference either way? That difference in two percentage is reversed — maybe by a lot — if you factor in a guy defending tough as opposed to a guy laying off, afraid to foul.
Here’s another advantage to playing aggressively. With 2.9 seconds left – that was the time of the Memphis inbounds pass – leading by three points, a coach should always advocate fouling before the shot. You have to be careful, goes the theory, because you don’t want to foul a guy who can throw up a quick shot and get rewarded with three foul shots.
But think about it. Knowing the percentages are close to the same for a 3-point shot and three foul shots, why not play tough and try to foul before the shot, knowing that even if you get hit with a three-shot foul, it’s virtually the same as letting the guy shoot?
I know, this all sounds counter intuitive. Sounds crazy. You don’t foul a guy on a 3-pointer. You don’t let him shoot unguarded shots to tie the game.
Except the math says you do. And this is not counter intuitive. Quincy Pondexter, coming off a screen and jacking up a 3-pointer, has little time to think. He’s all instinct. Put him on the line, with the game on the line, and all of a sudden the pressure mounts.
This kind of theory doesn’t work all the time. Depends on the player. You’d be nuts to foul Marc Gasol, an 84-percent foul shooter, behind the arc. Or Zach Randolph, who’s made two of 23 this season from 3-point range.
But Quincy Pondexter? I don’t think fouling Pondexter was Scotty Brooks’ instructions. But Reggie Jackson didn’t make a bad play.