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The NBA's most profitable play? Not a dunk, but a third free throw

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The epidemic of the 3-point foul (1:14)

The most efficient play in basketball isn't a dunk. It's not a 3-pointer. It's the free throw. And you know what's cooler than two free throws? Three free throws. (1:14)

KEVIN DURANT HAS JUST SILENCED the Utah crowd with a silky pull-up jumper, and now Jazz coach Quin Snyder is maniacally gesturing on the sideline like the most enthusiastic third-base coach you ever saw.

It's a tight Game 3 in Utah and the Jazz, down 86-81 and 2-0 in the series, need to execute this play call in front of the home crowd. Shelvin Mack, Utah's nominal point guard, deciphers Snyder's gestures and hands the ball off to Gordon Hayward, who walks up the court to initiate the action. This play is for Hayward.

It's a high pick-and-roll so far away from the basket that Hayward, who's being blanketed by Klay Thompson, is standing on the Jazz logo at halfcourt when he darts past the screening Rudy Gobert.

Then comes the contact -- and the scourge of this NBA season.

Fighting over the screen, Thompson sticks his right hand out and bumps Hayward on his off hand as he curls around the pick. After the contact, Hayward dribbles the ball with his right hand, flings his head backward violently and takes another step before heaving a 3-pointer from 35 feet away.

It works like a charm. Referee Bennie Adams whistles for the foul call on Thompson. Hayward's shot misses the rim by three feet, but no one watches it. The campaigning has already begun.

A nearby Stephen Curry immediately gestures with his right hand raised above his head that the foul was not in the act of shooting. So does Draymond Green. Interim head coach Mike Brown runs onto the court to make his case to the officials.

It doesn't work. Adams rules that it was, in fact, a shooting foul, the result of which will be three free throws for Hayward. Durant, across the court, slaps his hands at his side in bewilderment. On the ABC broadcast, Jeff Van Gundy can't believe it either.

"It's not in the act of shooting!" Van Gundy pleads. "The illegal contact takes place before [the shooting motion]."

A replay is shown on the broadcast.

"There's another dribble after," broadcaster Mike Breen adds, as Hayward flails on the screen.

If this was Snyder's play call, Hayward executed it flawlessly. Hayward isn't just any free-throw shooter. He ranks as the NBA's top free-throw shooter in playoff history, having made 82-of-86 thus far (.953). Hayward walks up to the free throw line, drains the three free throws, and Utah closes the gap to two with 3:56 left on the clock.

This is the cheat code of today's NBA: the fouled 3-pointer, delivering, on average, 2.5 points per play -- a king's ransom compared to the average payout of a 3-point attempt (1.1 points). It is, simply put, the most profitable play in the game.

This particular one was notable for reasons far beyond the clock and score. Hayward's trip to the line marked the 72nd three-shot foul of the postseason, tying the record set last postseason, which itself shattered the previous high mark of 51 set in 2014. Hayward's play had made history -- with more than a month left in the playoffs.

There were, it's worth noting, two more fouled 3s still to come in the game. No. 73 arrived about 80 seconds later, after Joe Johnson hit Curry's hand on the release, causing Curry to flail. No. 74 came with 22 seconds left in the game, with Jazz down 9, when Durant jumped at Hayward's pump fake and Hayward made sure to draw contact on a 3-point "attempt." On the call, Van Gundy argued for Snyder to waive it off and end the game.

"It's f---ing ridiculous," says one NBA coach, who asked not to be identified in the story. "It's a f---ing epidemic."


IF THREE-SHOT FOULS are an epidemic, James Harden might be identified as the host.

The Rockets MVP candidate has the three-shot foul down to a science, perfecting it in front of the most analytically-driven team in the NBA. Dribble into the high pick-and-roll. Wait for a defender to extend out an arm. Bam, rip through the reach-in for a 3-point attempt, no matter where on the floor.

Whistle, three freebies.

For Harden, it works like clockwork. Entering this season, the record for most three-shot fouls in a season was 44, set by Harden in 2015-16. This season, Harden has generated 122 of them, more than any NBA team. No other player this season topped the 50 mark. (Lou Williams, whom the Rockets acquired at the trade deadline it must be noted, placed second with 49).

That ripples through the Rockets offense. According to Synergy video tracking, no player scored more points out of the pick-and-roll this season -- or any season since Synergy was founded in 2003 -- than Harden's 957. And consider: Before Mike D'Antoni took over, the Rockets' offensive rating was 325th-best in the 3-point era; this season, with the three-shot foul in tow, it ranked 10th -- bested only this season by the Golden State Warriors.

Teams around the league have taken notice. Propelled by the Rockets' rise, the play has spread rapidly across the league. The final tally: an astounding 1,044 three-shot fouls league-wide during the regular season, obliterating the previous record of 694 in 2015-16. The wave of three-shot fouls has been so unprecedented that there were actually more three-shot fouls this season than in 2012-13 and 2013-14 combined.

Not only that, we just witnessed the best free-throw shooting season in NBA history (77.2 percent), thanks, in part, to the growing phenomenon of three-shot fouls. Shooters at the line of three-shot fouls convert 84.5 percent of free throws compared to just 77.1 percent on two-shot fouls. The reduction of Hack-a-Shaq fouls has also juiced the pot, but it's no coincidence that the top practitioners of the three-shot foul -- Harden, Isaiah Thomas and Damian Lillard -- are also some of the NBA's sharpest free-throw shooters.

It isn't simply a function of simply more 3-pointers being taken. Since 1997-98, 3-pointers per game have risen by 112 percent, while three-shot fouls have skyrocketed by 591 percent. There's something else going on.

And Gregg Popovich may have found the antidote.


SOME TEAMS CALL IT "getting your hand caught in the cookie jar." The Spurs call it "the strike zone." And against Harden in the Western Conference semifinals, they made a conscious effort to avoid the strike zone at all costs.

When asked about the Spurs' game plan to thwart Harden's tactics, Popovich plays coy. "If there was a magic bullet, and I knew it, I probably wouldn't share it," Popovich said before Game 6. Spurs guard Patty Mills shared it anyway.

"It's all about getting your hands up and keeping them out of the strike zone," Mills said. "As soon as your hands get into that strike zone where someone can grab your arm, then it's a foul. That's been our mindset throughout the series, just hands out of the strike zone."

The Spurs turned the series on its head with this adjustment. Against the Thunder, the Rockets had generated 13 three-shot fouls in five games, or 2.6 per game. In the six games against the Spurs, the Rockets generated just four. In the final four games, they drew none. The last one came in Game 2 when Popovich was caught on camera screaming some choice words at the referees.

"The biggest thing is what they're doing, they're going with their hands up," D'Antoni says. "They almost have to. As soon as you put [your hands] down, he's really good at drawing you into a foul. Give them credit to have the discipline to not foul. And that's huge. That's why every year, they're a championship-caliber team."

In Game 6, the Spurs handed the Rockets the team's worst loss in franchise history, ending the Rockets' season. Still, the three-shot foul wouldn't die. To understand why, you must first understand how contagious Harden and his antics have become.


IF YOU'RE TRYING to pinpoint the moment when the Miami Heat pivoted from basement-dweller to juggernaut this season, it likely came when Goran Dragic sat for hours on his laptop in mid-January trying to solve a problem. Dragic, a relentless basket attacker, grew frustrated that he wasn't getting the foul calls at the rim that he felt he deserved.

Was he doing something wrong? Were the referees missing something? How could he get to the free-throw line more? On a day off in mid-January, Dragic opened his MacBook and pulled up film of the league's top charity-stripe denizens: Harden. DeMar DeRozan. Durant. He began to study the masters at work.

"They maybe get 10 free throws a game," Dragic says. "I basically said to myself, I need to expand a little bit to get those easy ones. I'm going to try something different."

That's when he saw it, right there in his film study. As soon as the perimeter defender put his hands on the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll -- or "bullying" as Dragic calls it -- the Hardens of the NBA were taking advantage of the illegal contact by abruptly launching into a shot. A symphony of whistles ensued.

Dragic took note and worked it out in his head. He'd go into his normal pick-and-roll attack, slalom around Hassan Whiteside's massive frame ...

"... and I just stop," Dragic says.

His next game, against Dallas, Dragic tried it against Seth Curry and it worked -- kind of. In a high pick-and-roll with Whiteside, Dragic turned the corner and screeched to a halt. Curry fell into him and Dragic deliberately went up for the shot. Dragic got the foul call, but his foot was on the 3-point line. Just a measly two-shot foul.

The next game, against Milwaukee on Jan. 21, Dragic made sure he wouldn't make the same mistake. Heat backup center Willie Reed set the screen beyond the arc and Dragic victimized Matthew Dellavedova. Dragic turned the corner, stopped, felt the contact, rose for the shot. Whistle. Boom, three freebies.

From that moment on this season, only Harden drew more three-shot fouls than Dragic.

"It's f---ing ridiculous. It's a f---ing epidemic."

anonymous NBA coach on the rise of 3-point fouls

To put that in perspective, in Dragic's two previous seasons, he had tallied only two three-shot fouls in 150 games, nothing more than happy accidents. In the last 10 days of January this season, Dragic picked up four of them. In February, seven more. In March, a whopping 17 three-shot fouls. By the end of the season, he'd finished with 33, third-most behind Harden (122) and Williams (49).

In just a few days, Dragic had mastered the skill, even learning to target overambitious youngsters trying to impress their coaches with pesky defense.

"I just read the situations," Dragic says. "The rookies ... they want to play good. They're anxious, they want to be aggressive. If I see the guy is bullying me so hard, like two or three possessions, then I know next time I'm going to do that."

Study the list of Dragic's victims, and it's clear: the rookie-targeting has worked. There on the list of Knicks rookies Ron Baker (twice) and Chasson Randle. There's Phoenix rookie Derrick Jones, Pelicans rookie Wayne Selden. The list goes on and on.

At first, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was not cool with Dragic's new tactic. He says it made him feel a little dirty, like he was cheating the game. Then he saw that everyone else was getting away with it: "The only reason I accept it," Spoelstra says, "is because I was getting burned by it."

Still, Dragic says one misconception is that he does this purely for the three free points. That's an obvious benefit, he says, but more subtly the three-shot foul deters defenders from being physical the rest of the game. He believes the very threat of drawing three-shot fouls is a big reason why he averaged 20 points per game for the first time since he was named All-NBA in 2013-14. "It helps my game so much more," he says. "The players, they cannot be so aggressive on defense. I can go to the spot that I want."

Why did Dragic all of sudden discover the cheat code in mid-January? Dragic won't say. But then you check the calendar. On Jan. 17, Dragic played Harden's Rockets. Four days later, Dragic's three-foul shot party began. With a suddenly explosive offense, the Heat finished 28-11, the best record in the East over that time.


ASK ANY SERIOUS NBA FAN to name Antoine Walker's lasting legacy in the NBA and you'll probably hear one of two answers. One, his adorable shoulder shimmy that charmed basketball fans everywhere (well, most everywhere). And two, his famous response to the question, Why do you take so many 3s?

"Because there are no 4s."

Here's a funny thing about that line: Walker took 4,264 3-pointers in his career and never once drew a shooting foul on a 3-pointer. For 12 years, there were no 4s for Walker. The only other player in NBA history to take at least 3,000 3s and never once draw a shooting foul on the shot: Brent Barry, an analyst for TNT and NBATV who has, like a number of folks in the NBA, some strong feelings about the trend.

In Barry's experience, he feels that the 3-point shot has become so sacred that officiating crews are making efforts to promote it.

When he was a player, Barry says, the league issued memo after memo to protect the paint for giants like Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal. It was the golden era of being a 7-footer. This might be the golden era of the 23-footer. "I believe that the referees have evaluated and decided to protect the shot that has become more popularized, and ultimately more important to the game," Barry says. Add the fact that 3-pointers are more visible to the naked eye, it's harder to hide contact than in the paint where bodies are everywhere. "One is out in the open, away from multiple defenders. Makes it that much clearer for coaches and the viewing audience to see."

Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer sees it a little differently. "I don't think this is a reaction to 3-point shooting," Budenholzer says. "Players have simply figured out a trick."

Budenholzer says he's spent hours this season teaching defensive principles to avoid falling for the three-shot foul. For years in San Antonio as an assistant under Popovich, Budenholzer worked hard to teach his point guards to prevent contact with the ball-handler. There's a new wrinkle that Budenholzer sees now with an unlikely source -- the screener. A sneaky big man will use his hip to bump the defender into the ball-handler's direction, making the off-balance defender a prime target for the three-shot foul. The pick-and-roll has become a dance like never before.

Still, players like Dragic have burned the Hawks time and time again -- hoisting off-balance 40-footers in hopes of getting a three-shot foul. It's a loophole that Budenholzer hopes gets closed this summer. As he says: "It's not basketball."

The Charlotte Hornets have generated the second-most three-shot fouls in the league this season, thanks in large part to foul-inducing play of Nicolas Batum, Kemba Walker and Marco Belinelli. So it not surprising that Hornets coach Steve Clifford sees something else -- a league that isn't so much contesting 3-pointers, but rather, constantly mismatched on the perimeter. The league-wide uptick in switching on pick-and-rolls has bigs guarding wings out at the 3-point line where they're less familiar with opposing players' tendencies.

"People are switching and they're out of their comfort zone," Clifford says. "To not foul on those plays, especially with the great ones like James Harden, it's going to take a tremendous amount of discipline. At the end of the day, he's so good that if you even have your hand there, he's coming up through. We're going to have to teach a technique where you don't do it."

Some coaches suggest a different strategy. Remember the hullabaloo in 2012 when the league announced it would be punishing NBA players for flopping? Under league rule, players who engaged in "any physical act that appears to have been intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player" would receive a warning for the first violation and a fine for each additional violation that season. After 12 such fines were handed out in 2013-14, and just six the next season, only one was handed out last season (Marcus Smart, almighty flopper -- in the playoffs).

Multiple coaches who spoke to ESPN wish the rule would be enforced again, calling it a legitimate deterrent for such unsightly acts as three-shot-foul hunting. "That actually was working," one Eastern Conference head coach says of the flopping rules.

The league office has been monitoring the situation closely and doesn't see Harden's and Dragic's moves as a form of flopping. In effort to keep officiating consistent, it has not taken any action to make in-season changes to the rules. Instead, Kiki VanDeWeghe, the executive vice president of basketball operations for the NBA, told ESPN.com that the rise of the three-shot foul will be among the top items on the agenda during July's two-day meeting of the NBA competition committee.

The league believes the officiating has been correct in how it has called the foul violation against defenders, but what will be examined this summer, VanDeWeghe says, is whether it should yield three free-throws or perhaps a lesser penalty. With the game's biggest stars using the tactic to their advantage, the league wants to make sure a possible cure is not worse than, what many consider, a disease. Some interpret it as a smart play rather than a dirty trick.

"Given the two sides of it, do you really want to fix it?" VanDeWeghe says. "Is a fix what our game needs or wants given how good of a place the game is right now? We want to be careful and thoughtful about it."

Before Game 6 against Houston, Popovich said he expects the league to do something about the three-shot foul, but deadpanned that he wouldn't offer a solution himself. "That's their problem," Popovich said. "I've got other problems."

As three-shot fouls skyrocketed to unprecedented heights, there were zero -- zero -- flopping fines issued this season.


WHEN LEBRON JAMES kicks the ball out to Kevin Love in the right corner, it seems Love has only one thing on his mind: draw this three-shot foul.

It's the first play out of halftime of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals and the Cavs are laying it on the Boston Celtics with the score 61-39 in Beantown. As Love catches the bullet pass from James, Al Horford sprints to close out, jumping in the air and raising his hand to contest the shot. Instead of running into Love, Horford deliberately runs past Love's side to avoid direct contact -- but Love jumps laterally into Horford, drawing the contact and the whistle from the nearby official John Goble.

The camera pans directly to the Boston Celtics' coaching staff, seated one foot away from Goble, who's relaying the foul call to the scorers table.

It is here that Celtics coach Brad Stevens can be seen protesting the call to Goble, with a message that doesn't take a lip-reader to interpret: "That's ON the teaching tape ... from the league! It's on the freaking tape!"

Team sources confirm that Stevens' issue was that referees may not be following the rulebook sent out by the league to consistently call jump-shot fouls. The teaching tape that Stevens visibly refers to is the points of emphasis video sent to teams before the season. After pump-faking to get Horford in the air, Love clearly jumped sideways into Horford, as one Celtics assistant can be seen motioning on the broadcast.

Love goes to the free throw line anyway, hitting all three freebies. The Cavs go up by 25 and never look back.

Those who hate the three-shot foul may be pleased to know this about the Finals matchup: The Cavs and Warriors ranked in the top 5 in 3-point attempts during the regular season, but ranked eighth and 12th respectively in drawing fouls on them. They were hardly fervent practitioners of this dark art.

Then there's this: This postseason the Warriors and Cavs have each seen their three-shot fouls increase by 33 percent per game compared to the regular season. Love isn't the only one who's taking advantage of the cheat code on the biggest stage. James amassed just four three-shot fouls all regular season, but already has two in the playoffs. Channing Frye and Deron Williams each have a three-shot foul to their names this postseason after drawing three combined in the regular season. In Game 1 of the Finals, Kyrie Irving stopped short in a handoff and coughed up a 3-pointer to draw a foul on Thompson. The "circus shot," as broadcaster Breen called it on the air, fell in almost by accident. Irving converted the ensuing free throw to secure four points.

Oh, and the player who's seen his three-shot foul rate increase the most, now generating more per game than Dragic did in the regular season?

He plays for the Warriors, and his name is Stephen Curry.

ESPN's Tim MacMahon contributed to this story.