To Foul or Not to Foul? That Is the Question
By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, June 10, 2004; Page D01
LOS ANGELES -- I would have fouled Shaq. Seriously, if I were coach of the Pistons, I'd have told my players during that timeout with 10.9 seconds left and ahead by three, to foul Shaq. I know Shaq had made 9 of 14 free throws in Game 2, including a clutch one on the previous Lakers possession to cut the deficit to three. I know Shaq could have made the first, missed the second and the ball could have been tipped out around the perimeter for a walk-off, game-losing three-pointer. And then I'd have looked like the biggest fool in the history of coaching.
Still, I'd have sent the big man to the line. I'd have fouled him because he has made just 99 of 225 free throws during the playoffs. I'd have done anything to keep the ball out of the hands of Kobe Bryant, because Bryant might as well be Michael Jordan. If Bryant gets the ball with the game on the line he's going to make the shot. He's going to take your lunch money every time and send you home crying. And he did it again Tuesday night. He kept hope alive for his team, and as a result the rest of us get to play the second-guessing game. In fact, Detroit's Elden Campbell actually said to reporters afterward, "I was thinking, 'Anybody but him. . . . Anybody else.' "
However, Phil Jackson said immediately after the game, with no reservation whatsoever, he'd have played it just the way Larry Brown played it, which is to say, don't foul. Jackson said he'd been burned a couple of times in regular season games and strongly dislikes fouling in that situation.
Brown actually did instruct his players to foul Shaq -- but only if he caught the ball underneath the basket. As it developed, Shaq didn't touch the ball anywhere close to the basket. He caught the inbounds pass out above the three-point line and handed it to Luke Walton, setting a screen at the same time. I'd have fouled Walton and sent him to the line to hit one and try to miss one. It was a brilliant play Jackson designed, the double handoff from Shaq to Walton and Walton to Kobe, which freed Kobe from long-armed Tayshaun Prince and got him isolated one-on-one with Richard Hamilton, a very improved defender but still the worst defender on the floor for Detroit.
Anyway, Brown didn't really want to plan his final 10.9 seconds around fouling. Neither did Jackson. They are the best coaches in the NBA today. The Spurs' Gregg Popovich will readily tell you he learned so much of what he believes in from Brown. Still, I was looking for somebody of note to agree with me, so I sought the opinion of somebody who's been in that position a time or two.
Would Michael Jordan have voted to foul Shaq, foul anybody in that situation.
"No," Jordan said. "You play the best defense you can and take your chances. Kobe was way out and hit a great shot. And don't blame Rip Hamilton because he stayed with him. The only thing you can say is that he might have gotten a little closer to him to try and make Kobe step in so he'd be inside the three-point arc. . . . But I don't like fouling intentionally in that situation. For one, you stop the clock and leave time on it. And obviously, you have to consider the possibility whoever you foul could hit one free throw, miss the second, the ball could get tipped out and you would lose the ballgame in regulation on a three-pointer."
So, it's one of those times you simply tip your hat to the player who made the shot? "That's exactly what you do," Jordan said. "I wouldn't second-guess Larry on this one for one second. Kobe had to make that shot. Look where he is on the court with a guy making him go to his left. Sometimes the other guy makes a great play to beat you and you have to live with it."
Even Brown said, "Aren't we just allowed to give the other team the credit sometime?"
It's such a deliciously debatable issue that some folks think the real story is what the Pistons didn't do, which is foul. And while I think I'd have fouled Shaq (despite good advice from a basketball icon who has forgotten more basketball than I'll ever know), I still believe the number one story here is Kobe hitting that shot to tie the game and force overtime. He's the first player since the aforementioned icon that I expect to make the most difficult shots at the most critical times.
It's becoming routine, almost. See it, hit it. I like to go back and forth with Kobe good naturedly about nobody, not even him, being as good as Jordan. But even if we go with my presumption that the two aren't even, Kobe is closer to Jordan at this point than Tiger Woods is to Jack Nicklaus. Of course, this is the fun of The Day After one of the great games in NBA playoff history. In fact, it might have been the best championship series games since Jordan hit the shot to beat Utah in Game 6 in 1998.
Okay, I dare you, go ahead and tell me the thrilling details of some game between the Nets and Lakers or the Nets and Spurs. Philly's Game 1 victory in Los Angeles three years ago was pretty impressive, but it was nothing like Game 2 of Lakers-Pistons Tuesday night.
You just wonder how in the world the Pistons are supposed to get over having lost in such a crushing way. It's almost as if they'd have been better off just staying down by 11 and losing that way than going plus-17 in the third and fourth quarters to take that six-point lead with 47 seconds to play. You wonder if such a blow to the chin has left them dazed and stumbling, or if the Lakers' injuries to Karl Malone and Derek Fisher will undermine even Kobe's perfectly thrown punch. A series that didn't necessarily have all the signs of greatness when it started appears ready to rumble now.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company