The Dallas Mavericks beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 110-108 on Monday night in a game with big playoff-seeding implications, and the end of the game was awful. It shouldn't have been. The game was back and forth down the stretch and had all the makings of a thrilling conclusion.
But no. The NBA believes intentional fouls, intentional misses, parades of free throws and long replays are what the people pay to see instead of potential game-tying/winning shots. Seriously, can the league figure this nonsense out? It's not that hard.
The "should you foul when up 3 in the closing seconds?" debate is as tired as it is definitive. Yes, you should. No, you shouldn't be able to. The Mavericks, based on the stupid rules that currently govern this scenario, played it right on Monday. The Timberwolves had possession, down three, with just over 10 seconds to play, and rather than the clock ticking down to a potential game-tying 3 -- the exact sort of climactic ending that people who pay good money to watch these games yearn for -- Reggie Bullock just grabbed Patrick Beverley before he had a chance to shoot.
That's an intentional foul. Call it as such. Award free throws and possession, and see how long teams keep intentionally fouling. Of course, guys would just start being a bit more discreet with their fouls, graying the area of intentionality. Fine. Any foul, whether on the floor or the shot, that occurs outside the 3-point arc and inside the final 24 seconds of game time results in three free throws. Problem solved.
Unfortunately, that intentional foul on Beverley was only the beginning of a circus sequence only made necessary by this ridiculous rule, or lack thereof, however you want to look at it. After Beverley went to the line for two free throws, the first of which he missed, he had to miss the second on purpose. He managed to graze the rim in a perfect enough fashion to get his own rebound, at which point he was ... fouled. Again.
Or was he?
Of course, the Mavericks asked for a review of the call, which they got. So now, instead of a potential game tying 3-pointer, we get an intentionally missed free throw followed by a lengthy review. Anyone else ready to turn the channel? The Mavericks won their case, which resulted in a jump ball instead of more Beverley free throws.
The Timberwolves, still down three, won the jump ball, at which point we got the distinct pleasure of getting to witness the entire sequence all over again. Beverley chases down the loose ball, but before he can step back into a potential game-tying 3-pointer, Luka Doncic intentionally fouled him again.
Luka actually pointed to the ref to tell him he was fouling him. No attempt whatsoever to veil his intentions. So Beverley walks back to the free throw line. Riveting stuff. He makes the first, misses the second on purpose. The ball bounces around and the clock runs out. The Mavs win the game by two points, and after all that, 10 seconds that felt like they took 10 minutes to run off, the fans never got to see a potential game-tying shot.
The end of NBA games too often turn into the upside down. Fouls are supposed to hurt your chances of winning, but suddenly they help. You're supposed to want to make free throws, but now you're forced to try to miss. These rules took a really exciting game and turned it into a circus, complete with a long replay intermission, over the final minute, which is supposed to be the most exciting time of a close affair.
NBA basketball is an entertainment product.
Stop killing the most entertaining parts of the product.
While we're at it, for the love of god, please get rid of these take fouls that halt fast breaks. Let's poll NBA fans and see what they would rather spend their hard-earned money watching: transition alley-oops and dunks from some of the greatest athletes in the world, or reach-out-and-grab-someone fouls that lead to the always exciting sideline-out-of-bounds pass to restart the possession.
Also, since we're going down this path, how about we stop rewarding teams for losing. The NFL just suspended Calvin Ridley for the entire 2022 season because he gambled on games, thereby tainting the integrity of the competition, yet this time of year, all over the NBA, and just about every sport, you can find teams losing on purpose. They are flat out manipulating the results of these games for their benefit. What's the difference?
The NBA has tried to discourage tanking by changing the lottery odds structure, but it's a Band-aid over a gaping wound. Teams still have plenty of incentive to lose. The Portland Trail Blazers were inside the play-in line fairly recently and are still just two games back of a postseason spot, and they have absolutely no interest in winning. Their best players are strategically not playing. They'd lost 10 of their last 12 games. Seven of those 10 losses came by more than 30 points.
There's no perfect answer for any of this, but the questions we need to be asking are becoming more and more glaring. How long can the NBA reward things that are supposed to be punished? Losing. Fouling. It all falls into the same upside-down box. Everyone is yelling about these "take" fouls, and my guess is the league will address it this offseason in some capacity. The same needs to be done for these intentional fouls at the end of games, and that includes when the losing team tries to erase 47 minutes of defeat by turning the game into a carnival free-throw contest.
But for now we're just dealing with the utterly absurd scenario that calls for teams that are winning games to foul. Imagine a football team being up by six in the closing seconds of a game, and rather than allowing the opposing offense one final shot at a game-tying touchdown, they could just jump offsides, get whistled for a penalty, and somehow that forced the offense to kick a field goal, eliminating their opportunity to score the necessary amount of points to tie the game.
It's ridiculous in any other context than a basketball game, where we've just become accustomed to intentional fouls, either by the team winning or the team losing, defining the ends of games. As I said, there are ways to combat this. Foul outside the 3-point arc inside the final 24 seconds, it's three free throws. Foul in an obviously intentional manner, it's three free throws whether it's on the shot or not.
Or, why not give teams the opportunity to decline fouls the way a football penalty can be declined? In this case, the Mavericks would have fouled Beverley, and the Timberwolves would've rejected it. Add some time back on the clock and start the possession over. If you foul three straight times on a single possession, it's three free throws. One way or another, the offensive team is going to get its shot to tie the game, and the fans are going to get what they paid for, which, with the astronomical prices they're paying these days to watch games in which the best players regularly sit out anyway, should be the priority whenever possible.