Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Stall-Ball Argument

Three different people messaged me during last night’s Duke-BC game to make the same complaint as the Blue Devils’ lead whittled: that “stall-ball” was killing the team. I eventually had to leave the DBR Chat for the same reason, because the reactionary fans there were making it unbearable. What I want to do here is have an open discussion about the general strategy of slowing down the offense with a big lead late in the game. First, the data, and my thoughts. I have compiled the following sequence from the play-by-play data of CBS and ESPN.

The critical stretch, then, is from 12:36 to 5:05, Duke scored 3 points, while BC scored 14. Unfortunately I did not record the game and so cannot go back and verify this, but I believe the only possessions in that stretch where Duke played “stall ball” were the first two. Henderson chucked up an awkward shot with the clock about to buzz; the next possession, McRoberts inexplicably passed to Nelson with two seconds left. In Duke’s next possession, they burned nearly a minute off the clock with two offensive rebounds. I distinctly remember there not being a “stalling” tactic, as Duke employed an old-school weave play at the top of the key. Unfortunately, one of McRoberts’ passes flew out of bounds, and the possession ended.

The next sequence I think is the best evidence that slowing the game down was a correct strategy. On the next trip down the court, Paulus made a 30-foot chest pass to Scheyer, who pulled up and took a wide open three, which clanked off the rim. Since eight of the ten players on the court were between the arcs, BC easily grabbed the rebound, made two outlet passes and Marshall hit a wide open 3 to cut the lead to 12.

Duke’s next scoring drought lasted three minutes, through four possessions. None of these possessions was particularly “stalling,” especially once Duke’s lead was cut to 8 with three minutes left. The offense was moving, and burned a lot of clock. However, those things that need to happen for a team to close out a game- making free throws, getting offensive rebounds- stopped happening, and BC pulled closer and closer.

So Duke’s “stall-ball” offense lasted all of three minutes when Duke had a lead that ranged from 22 to 12 points. Duke’s fast pace up to that point was the result of poor shooting and bad passing by Boston College. This also ceased in the final ten minutes, and so did Duke’s opportunity for a transition game. It is certainly frustrating to watch an offense slowing down and watching leads slip away. But imagine what could have happened had a suddenly hot-shooting BC team been able to have more possessions with which to score.

A football fan wouldn’t argue with his team burning the clock while up 10 points in the fourth quarter. More appropriately (in a game where possession is more fluid, like basketball) soccer fans would never argue against their team protecting a two-goal lead by passing around the back. An excellent basketball-coaching site describes the advantages of the delay offense, and points out its effectiveness against an opponent who sits back in a zone despite a big deficit. If anyone has the game tape from last night, I am willing to bet anything that BC was sitting in a 2-3 zone during the first two possessions on the list, and so holding a 22 point lead against a passive defense- delaying the game was absolutely the right call.

1 comment:

Xenod said...

I think the problem people have with the delay offense is that we wait too long to start looking for a shot. We run the clock down to like 10 seconds, make a couple frantic passes and then maybe get off an ugly shot.

While I think this might be appropriate with 2 minutes left, 5+ minutes left is too soon to shut down your offense. Using time is fine, but not at the expense of good shot opportunities. The best thing you can do is score points with burning clock as a distant but significant second. With 5+ minutes left, I think that burning some clock is fine, but you need to start the offense with around 15 seconds left to give yourself a better chance of putting points on the board.

As far as Scheyer's shot, I think I have too much to say on it for it to really be in the comments section. I think there's some interesting math in there.