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#HoopIdea: More Buzzer Beaters!

The Trail Blazers ran out of timeouts against the Raptors last week and had no chance to get off a game winning shot. What if Terry Stotts had another option?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard nailed a tough fallaway jumper in the closing seconds to beat the Trail Blazers last week, much to the chagrin of every Portland fan.

Leonard’s shot fell through the hoop with 1.5 seconds left and the Blazers, with no timeouts remaining, were forced into a hopeless 75-foot heave. The game effectively ended when Leonard’s shot hung on the rim one second too long.

As a Blazers fan, that ending sucked. After 47 minutes and 58.5 seconds of A+ basketball we were given a game that ended before the final buzzer sounded and Damian Lillard never got a chance at a real rebuttal.

Paul Westphal and the 1976 NBA Finals (Yes, this is relevant)

In honor of True Hoop’s relaunch, I’m proposing a #HoopIdea that would make games like the recent Blazers/Raptors contest even more exciting: Repeal the Westphal Rule.

For those who haven’t wasted an unreasonable number of neurons on NBA history, this rule dates back to game five of the 1976 NBA Finals. With one second remaining in the game the Suns trailed the Celtics by one point and had the ball under their own basket with no timeouts remaining.

The Suns, much like the Blazers last week, were in an impossible situation. They needed to get a bucket but would be forced to go 94-feet in one second to get it. Darn near impossible.

Suns guard Paul Westphal, however, had a solution: call timeout even though the Suns had none, be assessed a technical foul, but be allowed to advance the ball to halfcourt.(1)

The strategy worked — the Celtics hit the free throw but the Suns took the ball to midcourt and Garfield Heard hit a jumper to force overtime.

Supposedly Westphal picked this idea up from the USC Trojans football team: “They used to call timeouts when they didn’t have any because it was only a five yard penalty and they could stop the clock when they were trying to come back at the end of games. To me, it was just something that translated to another sport. It was what people did when the situation was desperate.”

#HoopIdea: Repeal the Westphal Rule

Mimicking Westphal’s strategy is now impossible — the NBA changed the rule in 1996 such that “a team that calls timeout without having any remaining will be assessed a technical foul and lose possession of the ball.”(2)

The result: Situations like the Blazers/Raptors game where Leonard hits a shot with time left on the clock, but the Blazers have no chance for rebuttal.

I’d propose that the NBA do away with the Westphal rule and let teams call timeouts when they have none and advance the ball to halfcourt, but suffer the consequences of a technical foul. If that rule had been in place on Friday, Lillard would have had a chance for a miracle 3-pointer to force overtime, after a Raptors technical free throw, and extend a game-of-the-year candidate. Consider it a spiritual cousin to the “end the foul-out” argument.

Instead we watched the ball bounce impotently off the backboard. Yay.

Potential downsides to eliminating the Westphal rule include extending the time it takes to play out the last two minutes of a game and reducing the importance of coaching strategy. Both of those problems could be alleviated by eliminating one of the three timeouts coaches have in the closing two minutes. That would offset any time extension created by the technical free throw and buzzer beater, and also force coaches to think strategically about whether or not they want to be forced into a technical foul to advance the ball in the final seconds.

The upside is obvious: More BUZZER BEATERS, more opportunities for missed clutch free throws, and more drama.

I feel like I should type more here but if “more buzzer beaters without fundamentally changing the nature of the game” isn’t a good enough argument, then I don’t know what else to say.

Forty-three years ago Westphal artificially extended a Finals game and it went down as, arguably, “the greatest game ever played.” For some reason the NBA decided they should change the rules to avoid similar situations in the future and now we see fewer buzzer beaters as a result. Let’s right that wrong and gave players like Damian Lillard every opportunity to create highlights.


(2) I’ll admit I need some help on the historic details on the specifics of this rule change: I vaguely remember reading that the NBA initially changed the rule in the 1970s, but only applied it to situations where the team is already TRAILING. I have a hazy recollection that during the 1995-’96 season a coach called timeout with the game TIED, accepted the technical, and then someone hit a buzzer beater to win it. This game then motivated the rule change in 1996. I couldn’t find more specific reference to the ‘96 rule change or to the game that (I think?) I remember with a cursory review of the newspaper archives.