Time to make long-range flings a thing worth rewarding

NBA should find ways to encourage more deep, desperation shots

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The ball bounced to the right, beyond Marc Gasol’s reach, and Karl-Anthony Towns corralled it. Split-seconds were circling the drain as Towns tightroped the baseline, turned and jumped. All too aware of what a tough shooting night he’d had through regulation and most of the overtime – 6-for-16 overall, 0-for-6 on 3-pointers – Towns didn’t want to beat down his percentage any worse. He held onto the ball, landing as the horn blew, and let the hoops gods decide the Timberwolves’ and Grizzlies’ fates in a second overtime.

Minnesota lost.

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The end of the Wolves-Grizzlies game Wednesday at Target Center didn’t play out that way, but it could have. In the real world of non-italic type, Towns drained a baseline jumper that counted, boosting his team to a cool 99-97 OT victory on a subzero night in Minneapolis.

Yet based on trends in the NBA that seems to have grown over the past several seasons, Towns’ thought process and actions in the final two seconds could have flipped his buzzer-beater into a buzzer-clutcher. He even could have gone a little thespian, making an instant calculation that ensured the ball would not leave his fingertips until a hair too late, while feigning that “Darn it!” he really had tried.

Just a few nights earlier, remember, the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant had the ball and ample time before halftime to try a midcourt shot at Boston. Durant — arguably the most skilled practitioner in the league, as far as hanging onto such shots “just a bit too long” — exposed the selfish maneuver for what it is when his casual fling swished through.

But hey, the Warriors were up 61-59 and won 115-111, so the three points weren’t important after all, right?


Maybe try taking a poll of coaches on that and see what they’d say. Three points here, three points there, you start to add ‘em up and soon you’re talking real outcomes.

No one on the bench and by this point few in the stands are fooled that the aw-shucks late heaves are legit. Most of the time, they are intentionally tardy and no longer cute ways to preserve the player’s shooting percentage. Durant admitted to it years ago to ESPN’s Royce Young.

“It depends on what I’m shooting from the field,” Durant said in 2013. “First quarter, if I’m 4-for-4, I let it go. Third quarter, if I’m like 10-for-16 or 10-for-17, I might let it go. But if I’m like 8-for-19, I’m going to go ahead and dribble one more second and let that buzzer go off and then throw it up there.”

Durant, by the numbers, has gotten quite good at this dubious art. Since he joined Golden State, he has gone 0-for-3 on shots from halfcourt or farther, with fewer than 10 seconds left in the first, second or third quarters. He took and missed just one in 2016-17, did it twice last season and so far hasn’t risked one in 2018-19.

During the same time frame, teammate Stephen Curry is 1-for-25 (4.0 percent). Curry’s 3-point rate has felt the effect, settling at 42.5 percent vs. 43 percent without the flings.

Some might say, meh, no big deal. A decision like that, with so much game to play, doesn’t determine who wins or loses. No one’s slowing down, the equivalent of a referee allegedly “swallowing his whistle,” at the end. And as much as players hate having to rush up shots to beat the 24-second clock, you don’t see the same sticky-fingered indulgence then.

Compare the move and Durant’s casual explanation for it to the disrespect and anger NBA players feel when an opponent does nearly the mirror image, that is, puts up a shot he probably shouldn’t. Launch a needless field-goal attempt in the dwindling seconds of a game clearly decided and risk the other guys’ wrath.

The Celtics’ Kyrie Irving was fined $25,000 when he took umbrage at a last-second 3-point hoist by the Denver Nuggets’ Jamaal Murray, who was trying to reach 50 points in a game the Nuggets won 115-107. The Celtics point guard fired the ball into the stands afterward, rather than meekly hand over a souvenir, over the breach of perceived NBA protocol.

Consider Irving’s explanation afterward: “You just don’t. There’s a tradition and a respect within the league, as well as in any basketball game.” And: “I mean, when everyone knows the intent of it, I think it just makes it clear of what’s going on.” And: “It’s a tradition in the league, but it’s just immature.”

Any coach or teammate of a guy who purposely let the clock beat him at the end of a quarter or half could say the exact same things.

What’s to be done about it? There really are only two possibilities. Players have to stop doing it, period. Or the league has to stop counting such heaves, as a way to incentivize them back into significance.

The former isn’t happening, although the trend has changed course a bit so far this season; so far, we’ve had 22 players attempt at least three “desperation” attempts for a total of 81 such shots. Overall 140 players have hoisted them, slightly more than halfway through the schedule. In all of 2017-18, 206 players legitimately tried, including 18 who had three or more.

Then again, Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic is 0-for-9 so far. He might not yet be wise to the ways of this league, in preserving his personal percentages.

The latter option reportedly has been brought up in Competition Committee meetings and really is overdue. Just stop counting the heaves and flings and Hail-Mary bombs against the guys willing to try them.

If a player tries to nail an improbable 3-pointer for his team, at the peril of his own stats, don’t penalize him. In other words, do not count the shots in an individual’s 3-point or overall shooting numbers. If he makes it, fine, that’s a 1-for-1 on his ledger. But if he misses, it’s simply 0-for-0.

The league already has categories for team rebounds and team turnovers that don’t count against an individual. To generate a bit more of what makes the game exciting, to have folks in the stands thrill rather than smirk when such a shot goes up, it’s time to list “team heaves” in the box scores.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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