Game Strategy: Late Game Defense

Posted by on February 16, 2014

This is the second Game Strategy post, where I breakdown highly specific scenarios where optimal strategy only increases win probability marginally. The first one can be found here.
Texas A&M led Vanderbilt 47-43 with 27 seconds left yesterday on the road. According to the KenPom win probability calculator, that scenario gives the Aggies a 94.9% chance of victory. With Vanderbilt inbounding on the other side of the court, A&M’s Shawn Smith attempted to force Vanderbilt to take time off the clock by not allowing the ball to roll. Watch the full play below, as Kyle Fuller drives to the basket for an easy two:
A&M lets Fuller go to the hoop and score in just five seconds, decreasing their win probability to 90.3%. This kind of defense in end of game situations isn’t uncommon. The Aggies are practically conceding a quick two to avoid a foul. You could make the argument that they are also looking to avoid a three-pointer, but they certainly didn’t execute well if that’s the case (see the left wing in the GIF above).
My first criticism is of Smith’s on-ball defense. He clearly wants to make Fuller use more time by making him pick the ball up, but has the complete opposite effect. Not only is Smith in terrible guarding position when his momentum carries him forward, but Fuller is given a running start to the hoop. If Fuller picks the ball up around half-court, it would have been much harder for him to get straight to the basket without the running start.
My next, maybe more unconventional, criticism is of A&M’s ultra conservative defense. I think conventional wisdom is that a foul is the absolute worst thing that can happen here, but that’s somewhat narrow-minded thinking. I’m not advocating for a coach to foul, I’m simply advocating for a coach to¬†play defense. A defensive stop here with under 20 seconds left gives Vanderbilt a less than 2% chance of winning. As long as the foul doesn’t result in an “and-one”, it’s no different than what A&M did above.
Think about the scenario from Vanderbilt’s perspective. They need to not only score, but score fast. The time constraint should decrease offensive efficiency. Instead, I would say (anecdotally) that offensive efficiency actually increases due to defensive conservatism.
Of course, a more aggressive defensive approach doesn’t come without risk. For instance, a switch to zone defense would force Vanderbilt to work longer for a good look at the hoop, but also greatly increases the chances of a three-point attempt. Even with A&M’s (lack of) defense, they were still in very good position to win the game. The reality of late game situations like these is you’re likely to win either way. Also, just because Vanderbilt came back and won the game in OT doesn’t automatically mean A&M made the wrong decisions.

Probably more important than the coach’s philosophy in end of game situations is the team’s preparation to properly execute that philosophy. On Saturday, it was a combination of some poor execution and some unfortunate luck that led to Vanderbilt’s comeback win.

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