by admin on April 8, 2010

Every now and then, when I’m listening to a sports broadcast, I’ll hear the announcers say something about how the game is a “chess match” between the coaches. Usually I scoff at such comments, because the calculations that go on during a sports contest don’t really compare to the calculations that go on during a chess game. First, they aren’t as deep, and second, there are more probabilities (or luck) involved in sports.

But after I watched the final game of the NCAA basketball tournament on Monday, which I immensely enjoyed, it struck me that there was a good comparison between the finish of that game and a chess game, in the sense that so many subtle things happened that kept slightly changing the likely outcome. And the idea hit me this morning, why can’t you annotate a basketball game the same way you annotate a chess game?

Full disclosure: I am a Duke fan, for good and honest reasons, because I taught at Duke for six years (1983-89, early in the Mike Krzyzewski era). So I was one of the tiny minority of fans who were rooting for Duke to win this game, rather than the “Cinderella” team, Butler. For this reason it’s possible that my annotations are a little bit biased, although I’ve tried to be fair.

Also, my annotations may not be perfect because I haven’t watched a tape of the finish, so I’m going on memory. The time is in italics, the “moves” are in bold, and the comments are in ordinary type.

00:40 seconds left. Kyle Singler misses a wide-open jumper in the lane?

Duke is in full-on gag mode. They’ve been ahead for most of the game, but now their lead has shrunk to one point, 60-59. On their last possession, Nolan Smith was just slightly too weak on a layup. On this possession, they found the right guy (Singler led them in scoring for the game, with 19 points) in the right place, but Singler was way short with the shot, which barely touched the rim. Tentativeness, in basketball as in chess, is a sign of someone who is afraid of losing.

00:33. The ball goes out of bounds off Brian Zoubek’s foot.

In a big scramble for the ball, Zoubek originally seems to have the rebound, but four Butler players descend on him like hawks and swat it loose. You could call this a blunder by Zoubek, but I can’t give him a question mark for it because I think he was fouled. Still, it’s now Butler ball with a chance to win — in fact, for the first time all game I thought that Butler had a better than 50 percent chance.

00:14. Zoubek knocks the ball out of bounds under the Butler basket!

This was the first of several “brilliant moves” by Zoubek, who usually is a minor player on Duke’s squad but who was absolutely the center of events at the end of the game. After Butler passed the ball around for about 20 seconds, Zoubek nearly intercepted a pass and batted it out of bounds. A key subtlety was where he knocked it out: in the corner of the court, where the inbounds passer effectively has only a 90-degree range of directions to throw the ball, rather than 180 degrees. This turned out to be important!

00:13.6. Butler’s coach picks the wrong guy to throw the ball in?

Butler called a timeout to set up their inbounds play. Brad Stevens, who coached a brilliant game for Butler and really outcoached Krzyzewski, made his one goof of the night. He had a small player (don’t remember who) trying to throw the inbound pass, while Coach K guarded the pass with the long arms of the 7-foot-1-inch Zoubek. Advantage, Duke.

00:13.6. Zoubek forces Butler to use its last time out!

All Zoubek did was jump around and wave his arms like a guy trying to hail a taxicab, but that, plus the unfavorable angle referred to above, made it impossible for the Butler player to find an open pass. He had to call time out to avoid a 5-second call. This was Butler’s last time out — another subtle detail that I didn’t notice at the time, which made a big difference.

00:13. Howard gets the ball in to Gordon Hayward.

This time, Stevens has a tall player, 6-foot-8 Matt Howard, throwing the ball in. He has no trouble finding Gordon Hayward, Butler’s best offensive player, who is considered to be a likely first-round NBA draft choice if he decides to go pro. Butler’s last play really looks more like pro basketball than college. In the pros, most teams get the ball to their star in the last few seconds and let him go to work. In college, which has less of a star system, you are likely to see more passing to set up a final shot. I like college ball better, but there is no question that if you have a true stud like a Kobe Bryant or a LeBron James, putting the ball in his hands is probably the way to go. Is Hayward a Bryant or a James? We’ll see.

oo:o5. Hayward launches a fall-away jumper from the baseline?!

Even Hayward, after the game, admitted this was not the most high-percentage shot, although he said that “It felt good.” On the positive side, he did get an open look at the basket. On the negative side, a fall-away shot takes you out of position for the rebound … which turned out to be important. If he could have found a way to take a shot while moving toward the basket, it would have been better.

00:05. Zoubek alters the shot!

But the real key here was how Zoubek, once again, used his height to affect the play. He comes over to challenge the shot. Now I think that someone like Larry Bird would have made this shot (I’ve seen him do it). Maybe a few years from now, after Hayward has played in the NBA for a while, he would make this shot, too. But at this moment in his career, Hayward has not shot this fall-away jumper over a 7-foot player very many times. He has to fall back a little farther than he’s used to, and arc the shot a little higher than he’s used to, and that is enough to throw him off. The shot is straight but too long, and bounces off the back rim.

00:03.6. Zoubek gets the rebound and is fouled.

The most likely direction for a rebound to go is straight back toward the shooter. But Hayward has fallen out of bounds — the price for taking a fadeaway shot — and Zoubek is the only person in position to get the rebound. Butler immediately fouls him.

00:03.6. Zoubek makes the first foul shot.

In spite of being a 55 percent free-throw shooter, Zoubek is as cool as ice on the first shot. But now this sets up a dilemma on the second shot. Now is when Butler’s lack of a time-out starts to become critical. If Zoubek makes his second shot, Duke will have a 3-point lead. But Butler will have the chance to run a set inbounds play. Every college basketball fan knows that 3.6 seconds is enough time to get a pretty decent 3-point shot, either on a dribble or on a direct pass. If Zoubek misses his second shot, Butler will have to scramble for the rebound. This will cost them some time and they will have to settle for a miracle shot to win.

What is the right thing to do? I am going to guesstimate some odds.

First, suppose that Zoubek tries to make the shot. Because his first shot looked so good, I am going to estimate that he has a 70 percent chance of making it. Butler then has about a 60 percent chance of getting Hayward a decent 3-point shot, and he has about a 40 percent chance of making it. Thus there is about a 16.8 percent chance that Butler ties the game and it goes to overtime. The overtime is basically a 50-50 deal, given how evenly the teams have played. So Butler has an 8.4 percent chance of winning.

There is also a 30 percent chance that Zoubek misses anyway. In that case, as explained below, Butler has maybe a 4 percent chance of winning. Multiplying .3 by .04, we get another 1.2 percent for Butler. So on the whole, if Zoubek tries to make his free throw, Butler has a 9.6 percent chance of winning.

Now suppose that Zoubek deliberately misses his free throw. I would give Butler an 80 percent chance of getting a decent, uncontested shot from halfcourt, which is what happened in the game. The key thing is that a shot from halfcourt, on the dead run, is by any definition a miracle shot. Let’s say it has a 5 percent chance of falling. (Maybe 6 percent if Hayward takes the shot, but less if it’s someone else.) That means Butler’s chance of winning in this scenario is 4 percent (80 percent time 5 percent).


00:03.6. Zoubek misses the second shot on purpose!

Absolutely the right decision; Duke’s odds of losing are now 4 percent instead of 9.6 percent. Several commentators criticized the decision after the game, because it “almost” backfired. A similar thing always happens when a coach makes a decision that is, percentagewise, the right call, but backfires. Remember Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, going for it on fourth down against the Indianapolis Colts? Probably the most controversial call of the 2009 NFL football season. He got crucified in the media, but he did the right thing. The problem is that most people do not understand probabilities. They learn only from outcomes. If you do the right thing and lose, all they remember is that you lost.

This actually goes back to a ChessLecture I gave on “Zen chess.” You need to detach yourself from the actual outcome of the game, and concentrate on just playing the best moves. If you play the best moves and lose anyway, then so be it.

By the way, from the accounts I read in the game, missing the foul shot on purpose was coach Krzyzewski’s decision, not Zoubek’s. Actually, Zoubek was getting conflicting advice from the Duke bench, but coach K’s instructions to miss the shot were what he heard first, and he went with that. Smart move.

00:02. Matt Howard sets the pick heard round the world!!

So Zoubek missed the shot and Hayward got the rebound, which was a stroke of bad luck for Duke — the ball is already in the hands of Butler’s best shooter. Hayward races upcourt, closely shadowed by Duke’s Kyle Singler. And then — whomp! Singler isn’t there any more. He’s on the floor, “wondering who put a Winnebago in the middle of the court,” in the delightful description of Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples.

Of all the subtle things that happened in the last 15 seconds, this was the last and least appreciated, because Butler didn’t win the game. What happened was that Matt Howard set the perfect pick to free up Hayward, and Singler didn’t see it coming. If Hayward had gone on to make his half-court shot, he would have been the hero and it would have been considered the greatest shot of all time in the NCAA tournament. But everyone would forget the greatest pick of all time, which set it up. Without Howard’s brilliant play to take away the defender, Hayward does not get as good a look at the basket and does not have as good a chance to make the shot.

00:00.0. Hayward shoots … and misses.

Here is a picture of Hayward’s halfcourt heave at the buzzer. Note Kyle Singler flat on the floor in the foreground. I suspect the Sports Illustrated photo department tried to crop him out of the picture, but they couldn’t do it.

No question mark for this one; you can’t fault someone for missing a miracle shot. A lot of people (including Singler) said online that they thought the shot was going in. I wish I had been at the game, because watching it on TV, I never thought it was going in. I was surprised by all the talk later about it being “just a millimeter off.” But, you know, whatever. People like a good story.

As for me, I like a good chess game!

Addendum: By the way, here is a cool video called “Sport Science” on ESPN that analyzes how close Hayward really was to making his shot. They concluded that he needed to release it with 0.5 mph less velocity (remember what I said about shooting on the dead run?) and it needed to hit the backboard three inches to the right of where it actually did. From 46 feet, that’s pretty close … but it was still, in every sense of the word, a long shot.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Howard Goldowsky April 8, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Annotations? This is merely the lost art of good sports writing.


Sorcerer88 April 9, 2010 at 10:28 am

Very interesting idea! It gives a lot of insight on the mechanics of Basketball you probably don’t always get with “usual” commentaries. However, the “tactical” decisions here are probably only really good to comment and analyze in this kind of basketball “endgame”, where there is a lot of decision-making, timeouts and probabilities. Refreshing post!


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