The art of drawing fouls

There’s an understanding that when the playoffs come around, teams get physical. The pace slows down and the foul totals go up. Statistics would appear to bear that out. During the regular season, NBA teams attempted an average of 26.3 free throws per 100 possessions, and in the postseason that number has climbed to 28.7. There are three more fouls per 100 possessions in the postseason as well.

But is it this really a product of tougher defense and a “no easy buckets” mentality?

To me, it looks like refs actually allow more contact, jostling and bumping in the playoffs, and that players are getting fouled more because they are doing more to initiate fouls for the sake of initiating a foul. Focus on it, and you’ll notice that each game there are a lnumber of fouls that have very little to do with actually trying to make a basket.

That makes sense. When defenses clamp down, one of the most efficient ways to score is by getting to the freethrow line, so in the playoffs, the ability to get to the line is at a premium. In fact, many of the best players excel at seeking out fouls.

In Game 2 of the New Orleans-Los Angeles series, Chris Paul was putting on a point guard clinic when he drew one of the more ludicrous fouls of the post season. After snaking around a ball screen, he found himself with Derek Fisher pinned behind him. Instead of exploding to the basket, Paul used his off-hand to keep Fisher pinned and backed into him, directly away from the hoop.

Fisher, who was trying to regain his defensive position, made contact with Paul and was whistled for a foul. Play stopped as Fisher pursed his lips in frustration.

Of course, the Laker point guard isn’t some helpless victim. Along with a few others, he’s one of the league’s most talented players when it comes to these sorts of fouls. A particularly egregious example is when Fisher seeks out an unsuspecting big guy jogging down court on offense, watching the ball and not where he’s going, and plants himself in the player’s path at around mid court. When the big man plows through him, Fisher earns an offensive foul.

Is it a foul? Sure is. Is it super lame? Definitely.

Can you imagine doing that in a pick up game and demanding a change of possession?

Another prevalent example of this phenomenon is the now prolific use of the “sweep-through to draw a shooting foul” technique. Watch Kevin Durant shoot when he’s open; the economy of motion is stunning. But if a defender has his hand in his space, Durant alters this motion to include taking the ball in a wide arc around his knees to find the defender’s arm before “shooting.”

Theoretically, referees should be part of the objective infrastructure of the game that supports the unpredictability of game play. Like the 3-point line and the backboard, the referees should have an equal relationship to all players. The difference is that Paul Pierce can’t trick the backboard into giving him two points (only Dirk Nowitzki can do this).

Even though most people tacitly accept this part of the game as legitimate, we rarely evaluate players and teams on their ability to draw fouls in this manner.

But maybe we should, given the success of the Boston Celtics over the past few years. They seem exceptionally well-schooled in the dark arts of drawing fouls. Each Celtic knows how to act as though he’s been whacked in the spine with a billy club when he gets hung up on a screen, and they are the masters of provoking retaliation fouls with borderline dirty play followed by a theatrical reaction to any response from the opponent.

Hats off to the teams and players who take advantage of this element of the game. Their goal is to win, and drawing fouls anyway they can is a major part of that mission-- even if blatantly playing to the refs can dampen the fan experience when it results in the world's greatest athletes standing around forty five times each game.

For now, it's best to just appreciate the artifice. It may not be basketball at its most beautiful, but it's a natural consequence of pure competition.