On Tuesday night against the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out everyone’s old friend, the Hack-a-Shaq strategy. For seven straight possessions, the Spurs intentionally fouled Dwight Howard. And Howard, in turn, made San Antonio pay. He went 10-for-14 from the line on those seven trips down the floor, an average of 1.42 points per possession. Judged by the result, the Spurs made a mistake; a three-point deficit when the fouls commenced grew to eight by the end of the quarter. But Popovich and the Spurs have never been about the results; when Pop writes his memoirs, they’ll inevitably be entitled “The Process of Process: Processing Process (And Making Fun of Tim Duncan).” Though hacking Howard backfired, San Antonio’s scheme offers a bit of insight into the San Antonio decision-making process.
There are viable questions about the general efficacy of intentionally fouling, especially against a ~50% free throw shooter. The closer a player’s accuracy from the line creeps toward 60%, the more damaging repeatedly sending him to the line can be, for one, as even a 54% shooter generates more points per possession on average (1.08) than Houston’s top-10 offense (1.071). Anecdotally, a player continuously shooting free throws might develop a rhythm that ups his overall percentage, and the staccato nature of the game might threaten to take the fouling team out of its own rhythm on offense. Howard, for his part, is a career 57.4% free throw shooter, but he’s trended closer to 50% over the last three seasons. Splitting the difference and expecting him to shoot somewhere between those two end points places two Howard free throws at roughly the same efficiency as the typical Rockets possession, further muddying the waters of when — or even if — to employ the “Hug-the-Big-Lug” defense.
Fortunately for the Spurs, Popovich is the preeminent Emperor of Hack-A-Shaq. Pop doesn’t see tactics and strategies in grand generalizations and broad “Do we or don’t we?” queries. In this monarchy, context is the currency of the land. Go back to 2008, the year that the Popovich double thumbs-up gif was born. Most recall the events of that night, when the Spurs intentionally fouled Shaquille O’Neal, then of the Phoenix Suns, on the first possession in the first game of the season for both teams. Yet that was more than a jovial head coach and his prank on an opponent. The true genesis came several months earlier, when the Spurs eliminated O’Neal’s Suns from the 2008 playoffs. In the elimination game, San Antonio employed Hack-A-Shaq in a rather rare setting: up by double digits late in the game, as a tactic to prevent Phoenix from launching a flurry of triples to narrow the gap. It was a brilliant ploy, lauded by John Hollinger as one of the best moves of the first two rounds of the postseason:
For years, coaches have tripped all over themselves with how to use the Hack-a-Shaq. In the first-round series against Phoenix, Gregg Popovich became the first to really master how to use this weapon to his advantage. He used it in second quarters, when he had guys like Jacque Vaughn and Robert Horry in the game anyway and didn’t care if they picked up fouls, and used it when he had the lead to eliminate the chance of a 3-pointer.
Most of all, he used it at the end of quarters to get the last shot, and is continuing to use it with Tyson Chandler and Melvin Ely in the New Orleans series. If New Orleans has the ball with 25 seconds or less left, Popovich simply fouls intentionally so he can get the ball back for the Spurs. This should be a Eureka! moment for other coaches, and I expect it will be the league’s most widely copied tactic next year.
Shaq, in turn, responded:
“When you’re down, I can see using that as a strategy. But when you’re up 10, 15 points, there’s really no need for that. That’s a coward move. And he knows that. I’ll make ‘em pay for that.”
Needless to say, it wasn’t the most widely copied tactic the following year — or in any year, really. Teams still openly struggle with how to use Hack-a-Shaq, particularly in borderline situations. As a result, Popovich and the Spurs continue to enjoy something of a market inefficiency. San Antonio doesn’t have to make spur-of-the-moment calls on whether or not to intentionally foul, because they know the numbers and the personnel. They’ve done the homework on what specific circumstances call for Hack-a-Shaq and when to leave it be. Aware of the general numbers cited earlier about average expected points per possession, they’re free to zero in on moments of leverage.
Given the shape of his squad on Tuesday night, Popovich decided to intentionally foul Dwight Howard under a very specific set of conditions. Though Houston was without James Harden, the Spurs were in trouble on the injury front. Without Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter, it was but a matter of time before the Rockets seized control. That moment came in the third quarter, where the Rockets took a three-point lead, and the Spurs reached a crossroads. It was time for Duncan to sit, and there were no viable alternatives to patrol the interior against Howard. An Aron Baynes/Boris Diaw frontline seemed poised to give up a basket every time down the floor. Even with Tony Parker on the floor, San Antonio’s offense offered little comfort that the Spurs could keep the game close. Oh, and Manu Ginobili had just tweaked his hamstring, so he was unavailable to provide a lift to the second-but-really-third string.
Staring down the untenable position of an offense that couldn’t score and a defense that couldn’t stop anyone, Popovich went for the Hack-a-[Howard]. From a process result, it made perfect sense. Howard at the line was a (more or less) known quantity, an expectation of roughly a point per possession. He surpassed that average, but 10 points in seven possession still might have been better defense than the Spurs would have managed in playing him straight up. Additionally, San Antonio completely eliminated the ability for Houston to take threes, which could have broken the Spurs’ collective back and turned the contest into a blowout. Any impact on their own offense was minimal, as they were operating from a baseline of minimal production, anyway. And the whistles and stoppages of play allowed Duncan to rest for an extended period of time, ensuring that he’d be fresh for the rest of the game if deemed so necessary.
In the end, hacking Howard didn’t work. He made his free throws, and the Rockets won. But that perspective is too simplistic, accounting solely for what happened and not what could have been. Down three of their five starters, with Duncan and Ginobili on the bench, San Antonio’s prospects seemed dim. Intentionally fouling helped keep the Spurs in the game when there seemed no chance that the score would stay within reach. It was a decision bathed in context, fleshed out through years of practice. Gregg Popovich’s intent on Tuesday was the polar opposite of those 2008 playoffs; where formerly the tactic was designed to prevent a team from getting too close, its use against the Rockets aimed to keep Houston from blowing the game wide open. But in either case, the Spurs were ready. They generally are.