The last few minutes of a basketball game can be incredibly exciting.
But as hardcore basketball fans know, they can also be equally excruciating. With all of the timeouts and intentional fouling, those closing minutes can amount to 15 minutes of actual time.
Since the losing team has no choice but to prolong the game and hope for mistakes, this phenomenon isn’t going anywhere…or is it?
Basketball enthusiast Nick Elam has dabbled with eliminating the game clock during the final minutes to get rid of the intentional fouling and timeouts to advance the ball to the frontcourt (in the NBA).
It seemed like a gimmick at first. Eliminate the clock at the end of a basketball game and you eliminate the best part of basketball: the buzzer-beater. Who would consider such a thing?
TBT, that’s who. TBT isn’t Throwback Thursday, but the fourth edition of the summer-long The Basketball Tournament. Prompted by a deep hoops thinker named Nick Elam, TBT ditched the game clock for the last four minutes of its Jamboree round (15 teams playing for the last four spots in the field of 64). The idea isn’t to eliminate buzzer-beaters, but every other unsightly element of late-game basketball.
We all know the drill. Fouling, frequent stoppages, commercials, desperation shots, more fouling, endless substitutions, equally endless trips to the foul line, more fouling, timeouts in between foul shots, more commercials, more and more fouling. Did we mention the fouling?
Elam has studied the issue for over a decade, charting over 2,200 NBA and NCAA games. The data speaks for itself. Late-game fouling almost never works. The trailing team runs out of time the same way spectators run out of patience. But the teams foul anyway, because they have to, as it’s the only strategy available.
On the playground, we’d never do this. “Play to 15, win by two” is common. Variations on predetermining the winning score are even more common. “Play by 2s, play by 1s or make-it-take-it” are other keep-the-game-moving strategies.
At the TBT Jamboree, the game clock was turned off after the under four-minute stoppage of the second half. A “winning score” was determined by adding seven points to the leading team’s total. Play on until somebody wins.
Calling the games on ESPN3, I couldn’t help but smile. With minor exceptions, the players intuitively kept playing as they had their whole lives. No stall ball, generally unrushed offense and — best of all — a far greater chance for the trailing team to mount a comeback.
Instead of stopping the clock, getting stops was the priority. In consecutive contests, despite a seven-point deficit when the untimed portion of the game — dubbed the “Elam ending” — began, the trailing team came back to tie or take the lead, winning once and losing another on a walk-off breakaway dunk.
Yes, buzzer-beaters would fade into YouTube memories. According to Elam’s study, however, they occurred only 21 times in the 2,200-game sample (and only six of those were buzzer-beaters in which the lead changed). Are we willing to trade that for every game ending with the ball going through the basket? Isn’t more genuine “basket ball” better than less?
It’s worth a closer look. The designated hitter was a gimmick once, too.
It’s a wild idea that could perhaps be experimented with during the NBA Summer League, but it’s highly unlikely ever to gain traction in college or the NBA.
The first problem is it’s arbitrary. What is the “winning score?” Who determines it? Does it still go into effect if one team is up by 30 points in the final minutes?
The second problem is it abandons the strategy of clock management. The uniqueness of no clock in baseball works for that sport, and the desperation of the ticking clock works in others.
Eliminating the clock eliminates a lot of the urgency.
The final minutes of a basketball game can be hard to watch. But they can also be amazing. As with other sports traditions, fans have to take the good with the bad.