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Analytics Based Case for Fouling to Protect a 3 Point Lead

Foul at the End of a Basketball Game to Preserve a 3 Point Lead

Regardless of what your gut tells you at regarding protecting a 3-point lead at the end of a game, you are better off having a reason-based philosophy.  I also believe (especially with high school teams) that you are better off knowing in advance what you want to do. That way, you can practice it and there is very little communication and explanation that need to be made in the heat of the moment.

As coaches, we make more clearly thought-out strategy decisions when we are in our offices and not when we are in a tight game with time winding down. So being prepared and having a team that knows what you want and has practiced the situation is what will lead to execution in the game.


No strategy of any kind is 100% effective. You have to utilize the strategy that provides the best chance for your team to win.  The odds of winning definitely favor a team that is willing to foul with a three-point lead.

The “Go with Your Gut” Argument

If you do want a go with the gut argument, here is mine. Personal experience tells me this from over 35 years of playing/watching/coaching basketball games since the three-point shot was included for high school and college.  Many more late three-point shots go in to send a game into overtime than I have seen this sequence: 

  1. Player makes the first free throw (Under a lot of game and score pressure.  Not to mention the crowd if it is an away game)

  2. Misses the second on purpose, (Not easy to do under pressure.  And, it is something that is not practiced often.  I have seen many more attempted free throw misses result in violations for not hitting the rim, than result in offensive rebounds for the shooting team.

  3. Getting the offensive rebound of the missed free throw, The defense has 4 rebounders (The 2 inside spots and the offense 2 rebounders plus the shooter) without fouling on the rebound.

  4.  After securing the offensive rebound either score, pass to a teammate who scores, or call timeout to set up an inbound play.

  5. Make a two-point shot to tie the game.  Or to win the game if the opponent hits a three-point shot.

The following statistical argument is even more convincing than what I just provided.

An average three-point shooter, relative to the competition level, can hit 33%, even when closely guarded.

Now, let’s put some numbers behind the sequence from above.

  1. They have to make the first free throw. Let’s just assume you foul an above average 80% free throw shooter.

  2. They have to miss the second free throw on purpose without accidentally making it or violating and missing the rim entirely. To miss the free throw on purpose, the shooter can’t just shoot it to the right or the left, that would give a huge rebounding advantage to the defense because the ball will not come off the rim very hard.

    The must shoot it hard at the front of the rim to get a longer than normal rebound. I would say 75% success rate is high for not making the shot accidentally and not violating and missing the rim completely. I believe that 75% is on the high end and that actual results would produce a much lower percentage.

  3. The shooting team has to get the offensive rebound and not foul. 40% of the time without fouling would be great success on being able to do that.


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  4. The offensive rebounder then needs to score or pass to a teammate without committing a turnover or throwing a pass that is tough to catch and score off. They could call timeout, but that would give the defense a chance to regroup. And, at the end of the game, many times the team will not have a timeout.

    For argument’s sake, let’s say that they can get a shot off or complete a good pass 90% of the time. That percentage is probably high, but I want my estimates to be inflated to give the benefit to the offense and drive home my point that you have to foul at the end of the game to give your team the best chance to protect a three-point lead.

    And, we’re not even taking into consideration that unless a timeout is called, the shot quality will probably be rushed and off balance.

  5. The player shooting has to hit the shot–let’s say 50% success on a 2 point shot to tie, 33% on a three to win (since we assume that the first free throw was made)

To calculate the probability that all five of those things succeed on the same play, given our estimates of how often each would happen, you have:

     🏀80% (Estimation on making first free throw, multiplied by

     🏀75% (Estimation of successful miss on second free throw), multiplied by
     🏀40% (Estimation of getting offensive rebound), multiplied by

     🏀90% (Estimation of getting off a shot after rebound), multiplied by

     🏀50% (Estimation of making the shot)

Equals 10.8%!


That means 11 times out of 100, a team can execute all of those plays to be able to send the game into overtime.

Since I estimated high on the five plays leading to the tie and overtime or loss, that the probability of losing if you foul to prevent a three-point shot is actually less than 10.8% of the time.

I don’t think anyone could argue that you are going to give up a contested three point shot to tie the game much more often than 10.8% of the time.

As for the Execution:

  1. You have to practice it in practice.  You spend the last 10 minutes of practice going over end of quarter and game situations, right?  Put this scenario in so that you players are prepared and know exactly what you want to do at the end of the game.

  2. You have to foul the dribbler as far away from the three-point are as you can.  Near the 10 second line is ideal.  Use this as your rule for your players: We foul the dribbler at least 10 feet away from the three-point arc.

  3. Do not foul until the scoreboard shows seven seconds.  That way the clock will stop at 6 plus on the foul.

  4. Teach players to take the ball from the dribbler as they are dribbling. Make a play the ball so to not be called for fouling intentionally.

    If your players doesn’t come away with the ball, they did not executed properly.  In the unlikely case that the officials don’t call a foul, then you have possession.  If you get the ball and some body, then the foul is a common foul, more than likely resulting in free throws.

  5. If you are not in the bonus yet, that is even better.  Keep taking the ball when the opponent inbounds until you accumulate enough fouls to send them to the free throw line.
Is this fool proof?  Absolutely not!  Very few strategies are!  But, by my calculations, you will go into overtime 11% of the time.  To use a 50% chance to win in overtime, you will lose around five and a half percent of the time.

The Most Important Part of This…

If you don’t agree with my estimates, I encourage you to plug in your own beliefs for the numbers and “do the math.”  That is multiply the five percentages together and see what you get.
 A coach who fouls on purpose and then loses is probably going to catch a lot more criticism.  But, what don’t you get criticized for in coaching?  You just learn to ignore this one like you ignore all of the other unwarranted criticism you get.
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