The score is 106-105.
It’s the fourth quarter of a game between the Capital City Go-Go and the Santa Cruz Warriors at the 2022 AT&T Winter League Showcase, an annual scouting event held in Las Vegas. Capital City leads, but Santa Cruz is on an 11-0 run. The game clock reads…well, there is no game clock. Just a shot clock, which ticks below 12 seconds. Go-Go guard Kris Dunn fakes a pass, drives hard to the basket and springs toward the rim.
“Dunn, penetrating, for the win…” exclaims the announcer.
The former No. 5 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft kisses a tough layup off the glass. 108-105. Game, Capital City.
That probably sounds…strange. To uninformed fans watching on television, it probably looked strange, too. During this year’s Winter Showcase, the G League conducted one of its biggest experiments yet: incorporating Final Target Scores, which may be known by many in the basketball world as the “Elam Ending,” a concept conceived by Ball State University professor Nick Elam and made popular by the summer competition, The Basketball Tournament.
Under the new G League guidelines, the clock was turned off after three quarters, and all games were played until one team reached a “target score” of 25 points added to the leading team’s total. Capital City was ahead of Santa Cruz 82-77 as the fourth quarter began, which meant that the first team to 107 would win the contest. Dunn’s layup sealed the deal.
“It makes it competitive,” Dunn told SLAM afterward, when asked about the target score format. “You don’t see any time on there, so it’s a little different, a little off. But I think over the last few days—with the target score—there have been a lot of close games. I think that brings the energy in the building when it’s close, so I like it.”
The G League is also using a target score for its overtime periods this season—instead of being timed, extra sessions are a race to seven points.
“I like that the league experiments with this kind of stuff,” says play-by-play broadcaster Kevin Danna, who has been calling G League games for more than a decade. “This is what it’s here for. Nothing is going to be perfect the first time around.”
Since its founding in 2001, the G League has served as a laboratory for the NBA—a testing ground for various ideas that could enhance the game. Danna has seen the league introduce several new rules through the years—some radical, some minor. Recently added NBA regulations such as the transition take foul, coach’s challenge and 14-second shot clock reset were all first evaluated at the G League level.
“Throughout the calendar year, not just the season, we’re always throwing stuff on the wall to see what sticks,” says Malik Rose, Head of Basketball Operations for the G League. “We’re always thinking about ways that we can improve the game. You hear Commissioner [Adam] Silver talking about innovation, innovation, innovation—that goes into it. So we’re in constant communication with [the NBA] throughout the year. Some rules are instituted to solve a problem at the NBA level, and some rules are tested to see if we can improve the game in some way.”
Of course, many of the G League experiments don’t make it to the NBA, lasting only a few seasons. The international goaltending rule—where the ball is live as soon as it hits the rim, even if it’s above the cylinder—was in place from 2010-15 but never gained enough traction to get “called up.”
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Other unique rules have become staples of the current G League game, even if it’s difficult to imagine them ever reaching the NBA. In 2019, the G League instituted the one free-throw rule, which stipulates that only one free throw be taken in all situations during the first 46 minutes of a game. So if Dunn is fouled shooting a three-pointer in the second quarter, he takes one free throw worth 3 points. In the final two minutes, standard NBA free-throw rules apply.
Of all the inventive and creative reforms explored in the G League (for the 2004-05 season, the league even tested a rule where three-pointers counted as only 2 points until the last three minutes of each quarter), “target score” ranks among the most ambitious. Ahead of the Winter Showcase, teams had to adjust their strategies. Players had to shift their mindsets. Fourth quarters at the event felt more intense, pressure-filled and competitive.
“It becomes a possession game, especially when it’s a close game in that fourth quarter,” says Tyler Cook, a forward on the Salt Lake City Stars. “Literally, every single possession matters, even more so than I feel like it does in the regular game format.
“We do situational games a lot in practice—it just feels like that,” Cook continues. “Because every single possession, you’re so used to looking up at the clock and checking for how much time you have left, but it’s really just about the score and trying to figure out how to get just one stop at a time and get a great shot every single time down. It adds a different feel to it, and it just makes you focus on every single possession more.”
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It also forced coaches to reconsider substitution methods—if a player usually checks in at the eight-minute mark, when should he be called upon during a target-score fourth quarter?—and develop new game plans. What plays do you draw up when you’re three points away from the target score? What about six points? And how do you defend on the opposing side of those situations?
“The best part about it is that we’re all sort of learning on the fly here, so everyone is trying out different strategies,” Billy Campbell, General Manager of Basketball Operations for the Birmingham Squadron, said at the Showcase. “It’s almost like a lot of game theory. If we do this, then what happens on the other end?”
The creative format received mixed reviews from players and staff. It did have the effect of eliminating the intentional fouling that happens late in NBA games, when teams are trying to claw their way back without time running off the clock. Showcase games were generally faster—instead of 12 minutes, the average fourth quarter took just 10:22 to play—and often more dramatic than typical G League contests.
“My personal impression is that it’s done what it’s supposed to do—create exciting finishes,” says Rose. Every contest ended with a game-winner, from step-back three-pointers to breakaway dunks. It was 97-97 in the Showcase championship, with a target score of 99, when Ontario Clippers guard Xavier Moon nailed a midrange jumper to secure the $100,000 prize for his team. Some squads were able to mount improbable comebacks: the Rio Grande Valley Vipers erased a 16-point deficit in the fourth quarter, storming back to grab a 125-119 victory over the Iowa Wolves.
“I like [the target score] because no team is ever mathematically out of the game,” Danna says. “You could be down 20 with 40 seconds to go in the fourth quarter—you’re not going to win— 0.0% chance. But teams can go on 21-0 runs in this league. A 20-point lead really isn’t much in this league. So it gives the other team hope.”
Whether or not the NBA will integrate a target-score format in settings beyond the NBA All-Star Game (where it’s been utilized since 2020) remains unclear, but the extensive testing being done in the G League suggests that the concept is under serious consideration for a larger role. It is one of numerous topics that continue to be discussed at league offices, including adding a second Coach’s Challenge, as executives mull the future of the sport.
“We’re looking at a lot of stuff,” Rose tells SLAM.
No ideas are too trivial—or too extreme—when it comes to improving the game. So Rose and his team will just keep throwing stuff at the wall. And let’s see what sticks.
Photos via Getty Images.
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