It seemed like a gimmick at first. Eliminate the clock at the end of a basketball game and you eliminate the best part of basketball: the buzzer-beater. Who would consider such a thing?
TBT, that's who. TBT isn't Throwback Thursday, but the fourth edition of the summer-long The Basketball Tournament. Prompted by a deep hoops thinker named Nick Elam, TBT ditched the game clock for the last four minutes of its Jamboree round (15 teams playing for the last four spots in the field of 64). The idea isn't to eliminate buzzer-beaters, but every other unsightly element of late-game basketball.
We all know the drill. Fouling, frequent stoppages, commercials, desperation shots, more fouling, endless substitutions, equally endless trips to the foul line, more fouling, timeouts in between foul shots, more commercials, more and more fouling. Did we mention the fouling?
Elam has studied the issue for over a decade, charting over 2,200 NBA and NCAA games. The data speaks for itself. Late-game fouling almost never works. The trailing team runs out of time the same way spectators run out of patience. But the teams foul anyway, because they have to, as it's the only strategy available.
On the playground, we'd never do this. "Play to 15, win by two" is common. Variations on predetermining the winning score are even more common. "Play by 2s, play by 1s or make-it-take-it" are other keep-the-game-moving strategies.
At the TBT Jamboree, the game clock was turned off after the under four-minute stoppage of the second half. A "winning score" was determined by adding seven points to the leading team's total. Play on until somebody wins.
Calling the games on ESPN3, I couldn't help but smile. With minor exceptions, the players intuitively kept playing as they had their whole lives. No stall ball, generally unrushed offense and -- best of all -- a far greater chance for the trailing team to mount a comeback.
Instead of stopping the clock, getting stops was the priority. In consecutive contests, despite a seven-point deficit when the untimed portion of the game -- dubbed the "Elam ending" -- began, the trailing team came back to tie or take the lead, winning once and losing another on a walk-off breakaway dunk.
There are no buzzer-beaters in the strictest sense of the term (as there are no buzzers to beat). The better analogy would be that every contest is the equivalent of an extra-inning baseball game won by the home team. The game always ends with a walk-off score of some kind, be it a basket or a free throw (regarding the latter, defensive teams learn quickly not to foul if they are a single possession away from defeat).
In several instances, when both teams were within a single possession of the target score, a version of sudden-death basketball was created. The intensity on both offense and defense belied the casual nature of summer basketball. It's not hard to imagine the overwhelming intensity participants and spectators would experience in an elimination setting (think overtime in Game 7 of an NHL playoff series).
Yes, buzzer-beaters would fade into YouTube memories. According to Elam's study, however, they occurred only 21 times in the 2,200-game sample (and only six of those were buzzer-beaters in which the lead changed). Are we willing to trade that for every game ending with the ball going through the basket? Isn't more genuine "basket ball" better than less?
It's worth a closer look. The designated hitter was a gimmick once, too.