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The first four games of the series between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder have been great. The fourth quarter of Game 4, however … not so much. It was ugly. For multiple reasons. One of the reasons was Andre Roberson.
Or rather, it was “Hack-an-Andre” — Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni’s decision to intentionally foul Oklahoma City forward Andre Roberson off the ball with the Thunder already in the bonus.
The scheme went into effect in the final five minutes of a close game. James Harden put Houston up three with a layup with 4:18 remaining. On the very next possession, with Russell Westbrook surveying the Thunder defense on the right side of the floor, Trevor Ariza sprinted up to the top of the key 20 feet away from the ball. What the heck is he doing, fans might have initially thought.
But then it became clear. Ariza lightly shoved Roberson, a 42.3 percent free throw shooter, to send the Thunder wing to the line. Roberson missed both, and right then and there, Houston’s strategy for the next minute became clear. Roberson hadn’t yet made a free throw in the series.
The Rockets proceeded to foul Roberson on the next three possessions, until finally, mercifully, Thunder coach Billy Donovan removed his defensive ace from the game. Roberson made two of his eight free throws in between the 4:11 and 3:29 marks of the fourth quarter to improve his playoff free throw mark to 2 for 17.
The corresponding sliver of the game’s play-by-play log is absurd:
On the seventh and eighth free throws, the Rockets bench couldn’t help but rise in anticipation, ready to mock Roberson for his free-throw difficulties. And, sure enough…
This is pretty damn disrespectful from the Rockets bench. I don't care how bad Roberson is at free throws. You are professionals, not kids. pic.twitter.com/haWCgr9NPZ
— Adam Joseph (@AdamJosephSport) April 23, 2017
They didn’t just mock him. They reacted hysterically, laughing at yet another miss.
Is this disrespectful, as the above tweet suggests? Yes, of course it is. But is there anything wrong with it? Of course not. It’s great. It’s hilarious.
Roberson is getting paid millions of dollars to be a basketball player, and part of being a professional basketball player is making free throws. Roberson wasn’t doing his job, and because he wasn’t, the Rockets — who were profiting from his failures, and who had a vested interest in his continued inability to make free throws — were ridiculing him for it. If Roberson makes the free throws and the Thunder win the game, he and they can laugh in Houston’s face all they want. But he didn’t, and they didn’t. The problem here isn’t the Rockets having fun at Roberson’s expense. It’s Roberson’s dreadful shooting. So the Rockets had every right to laugh.
Asked for his take on the Rockets’ sideline side-splitting during the Thunder’s Monday shootaround, Westbrook responded with just the sort of shade you might expect:
Westbrook on the Rockets' bench laughing at Roberson as he missed free throws: pic.twitter.com/lan4oQ7f1s
— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 24, 2017
“I didn’t see it,” he said of Houston players cracking up. “I didn’t see it at all. It’s probably the guys that don’t play, probably, over there, are the ones laughing. If I had to guess.”
The larger, more consequential issue here is the strategy. The NBA has been chastised for not implementing a rule to counteract this “hack-a-[player who is very bad at shooting free throws]” ploy. Unfortunately for Donovan and the Thunder, no rule change is coming between Game 4 and 5, so Donovan will be left with a big decision: Does he keep Roberson on the floor even before the two-minute mark, when off-ball fouls are no longer allowed? Or does he replace him with Jerami Grant or another bench player?
Two Roberson free throws are not a quality offensive possession. They’re equal to 0.85 points per possession, plus the value of a potential offensive rebound, and they’ve been far less valuable in the playoffs. On an average possession, the Thunder score 1.05 per trip.
But Roberson is still valuable to the Thunder because he’s their defensive stopper. That’s likely why Donovan didn’t remove Roberson from the game immediately after the first foul. Roberson guards Harden, and held the Rockets star to 16 points and seven turnovers on the day. But Harden won the battle late: He came up with enough buckets, while the Thunder suffered as Roberson’s misses turned into empty possessions.
So if Ariza — or another Rocket — sprints toward the top of the key in the fourth quarter of a tight Game 5, it might be time for Donovan to pull Roberson from the game until the final two minutes.