Last night, with about 8 minutes to go in the Indiana-Miami NBA playoff game, Danny Granger for Indiana picked up his 5th foul. Loyal readers will know that I was rooting hard for Granger to be left in (especially since, like so many fans, I would like nothing better than for Miami’s stars to take their talents home for a long offseason.) This time, my hope was actually fulfilled as the coach did not substitute. Just when the evening appeared to be a triumph for rationality, announcer Mike Breen said “Well, you have to leave him in…it’s an elimination game” (meaning a loss would eliminate Indiana.) Now, finding inane comments by sportscasters is like shooting garrulous fish in a barrel, but I think there are some common and important fallacies at work here, so let’s dissect why Breen would have said what he did. As in most fallacious thinking, he was applying reasoning which would apply in closely related situations, but not here.
1. Desperate times call for desperate measures. In some situations, this intuition can be invaluable. If you are down 3 points with time expiring, you had better try a 3. But it only applies to the state of the series if decisions have spillover effects from game to game. Now if we were talking about players becoming injured, or extremely fatigued, there might be spillover effects to the next game, and then you actually should consider the state of the series. But not for fouls (in basketball, unlike soccer.) Unless your decision affects the next game, you play to maximize your chance of winning the current game, whether ahead or behind in the series. The proverbial “one game at a time” really does apply here.
2. Leaving a player in with 5 fouls is a risky move. It’s easy to think this way, but wrong. I won’t rehash my earlier post. Incidentally, the argument I posted here appeared (independently, apparently) in the book Scorecasting, an enjoyable compendium of insights that go against sports conventional wisdom.