LOS ANGELES -- Nobody really likes the Hack-a-Shaq strategy and what it can do to a basketball game. It's ugly, boring, slow, repetitive. But it's a strategy that has been used to varying degrees of success before and probably isn't going to stop without a rule change.
The real question is whether it works. And as far as Houston Rockets guard James Harden is concerned, it wasn't worth it in Sunday's 128-95 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinals series.
"Personally, I don't like it," Harden said after the Rockets mercilessly fouled Clippers center DeAndre Jordan in the nearly three-hour game. "But I guess different coaches have their different philosophies on the game."
Jordan is a career 41 percent free-throw shooter in the playoffs after going 14-for-34 on Sunday night.
In all, the Rockets committed 40 fouls in Game 4, putting the Clippers on the line for 63 free throws. They made just 37 of them. So in one sense the strategy worked. Coach Kevin McHale said the Rockets only went to the Hack-a-Shaq strategy so early in the first half -- when Jordan shot a playoff-record 28 free throws -- because they were forced to go with a small lineup after Dwight Howard got into early foul trouble.
"We were just trying to see if we could muck up the game a little bit," McHale said. "We just thought maybe we could get them out of their rhythm a little bit."
Indeed, the Clippers were up only 60-54 at the half. So the strategy seemed to serve its purpose of keeping the score close while Howard was on the bench in foul trouble.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, the constant fouling had the unintended benefit of allowing Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who is still coming back from an injured hamstring that caused him to miss the first two games of the series, to rest more.
"We were going to take CP out and I turned to [trainer Jasen Powell] and said, 'He's just walking down the floor every time,'" Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "Even though the minutes were ticking, there was no basketball going on, so he could stay in."
It also allowed the Clippers' defense to get set, which kept the Rockets from getting into the transition game they are so adept at.
The Rockets have several poor free-throw shooters, so they're used to playing in games like this. But in this game, the constant trips to the line seemed to contribute to a lack of rhythm and flow within their offense.
"We're not really moving," Harden said. "We're not really moving on the offensive end. We're pretty much stagnant, so it makes it easier for them to kind of load up and play their normal defense.
"They're a really good defensive team and they're not going to change, so we've just got to move and cut for each other and create open shots."
The Clippers often take Jordan out of the game when teams employ the Hack-a-Shaq strategy on him. Rivers says he plays that by feel, and doesn't have rules as to when he'll let Jordan stay in the game once teams start fouling him.
"I really don't have a strategy for it," he said. "I look at the score, I look at fouls, I look at the rhythm of the game. It was hurting us, but I didn't think it was hurting us enough to take him out, because his defense is so important."
That was clearly the Rockets' objective in starting to foul Jordan just 3 minutes, 40 seconds into the game. Howard picked up two quick fouls and had to come out of the game and Houston was forced to play a smaller lineup. The Rockets then fouled Jordan incessantly. At one point, reserve forward Clint Capela fouled him four times in less than two minutes of action. Jordan was 7-of-14 from the line in the first quarter, but the Rockets led 33-30.
"I didn't really know how many I was shooting," Jordan said. "I was just trying to make as many as I could for our team and on the other end, just try to get as many stops as I could in a row."
Jordan hit just three of 14 free throws in the second quarter, but the Clippers surged to a 60-54 halftime lead behind a strong effort from their bench (Austin Rivers had seven points in the quarter, Jamal Crawford had six.)
"Anybody that shoots 28 free throws in the first half, that's crazy. I've never witnessed that or experienced that," Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. "We just grinded it out, and I think that's a little demoralizing to be up six at halftime and the team to be putting somebody on the line 28 times in the half. It's a good sign for us."