Beyond the new crop of stat wizards, and every zany guy behind a backboard with a poster of Kate Upton, free throws have never really inspired anyone.
And still they matter.
For those who’ve played ball anywhere, professionally, in high school, or on some dusty back lot, foul shots were never the draw card, the thing that urged you out of bed Saturday morning to hustle to the mall for a short set, to paraphrase the Fresh Prince.
No, buying new sneakers, let alone playing in them, has always been done with more in mind than wanting to show off your stroke at the charity stripe.
And yet, despite this unending lack of cache, we recently watched the NBA’s team of the moment, the Los Angeles Clippers, beat the Golden State Warriors from the free throw line in the most pivotal contest of that series, Game 5. It was a masterful, if bland display of shooting, that not even the NBA’s premier bombardier Stephen Curry could match. Oh sure, Curry drops them in from the parking lot down the street, but what of it? The Clippers hit 31 of 41 free throws in that performance – for 31 free points!
Why is this important? Because Chris Paul won’t be able to pop three-pointers like he’s Larry Bird every night against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Paul’s long-range brilliance overshadowed the fact that DeAndre Jordan turned back into Dennis Rodman on Monday, squeezing in just one free shot from eight attempts. It didn’t matter, of course, but it seems ironic that his poise from the foul stripe just days ago had helped dispose of the smooth-stroking Warriors.
To be fair, the Clips shot just 57% from the line as a group against the Thunder in Game 1. Again, while it didn’t matter that night, good free throw shooting is contagious. For example, Blake Griffin stepped to the line in the first minute of Game 5 against the Warriors, and this set the tone for what followed.
Cast your mind back: The arena was buzzing after Silver had put Sterling to the sword, and it felt like the fans were about ready to party. They wanted to party, as Vince Vaughn’s Swingers character Trent might have told us, led in by an emotional anthem and rousing cheer. The game really deserved a Paul-to-Griffin alley-oop to begin with, or a thunderous rim rocker from DeAndre Jordan, or at the very least, another Billy Crystal kiss-cam moment.
Instead we got 'two shots'.
As it turns out, there was significance to those shots and this lingers in my mind now as the Clips face a more formidable opponent. The team had come of age, and its solid foul shooting exemplified this. Not only would they go on to thwart the monumental pressure they faced, but they excelled, lobbing the ball around as loosely as the Globetrotters, measuring up their threes with poise, and absorbing the Warriors hits so that they might have a chance to grind it out at the line.
The Clips made the W’s pay, especially Jordan, who really appeared to be enjoying it all, even at the foul stripe, which he normally must dread. The Warriors were taken aback. The last time anyone looked on so helplessly at so many well-timed free shots they were staring back at Don Rickles. Jordan, a career 43% free throw shooter, according to the Elias Sport Bureau, knocked down 9-of-17. This now seems so distant after his one-for-eight, doesn’t it?
So if the Clips are to forge ahead these playoffs, their free throw shooting might be a telling factor. They can certainly match it with the best in this department because they have the likes of J.J. Reddick, Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford. However, given that Jordan is on the floor so much, he needs to be more Mr Hyde than Dr Jekyll, assuming the latter is the sharper shooter.
Sure, Paul has it in him to dominate this series. Relying on the three-ball, though, might prove problematic, especially since guys like Matt Barnes, Danny Granger and Crawford also like to throw them up, but don’t always see them go down - at least not more than 40% of the time.
That’s why free throws are vital to the playoff game plan.
Consider that when the Lakers won the championship in 2002 and 2003, Shaquille O’Neal made more than 60% of his foul shots. His 65% in the ’02 postseason and 65% in ’03, were the best of his playoff career (with the exception of his hiatus in Cleveland where he played fewer games, minutes and took less attempts. Come to think of it, I don’t even think that was Diesel but a cardboard cut-out on wheels, Kevin McCallister style).
The point is, if the Clips can get decent foul shooting out of Jordan, Crawford and even Blake Griffin for the rest of the playoffs, the mere free throw might just become a staple of the team’s arsenal, up there with the mighty alley-oop. Couple strong foul shooting with smothering defense, energy on the boards and a home crowd with a chance to become the most boisterous sixth man since Cliff Robinson, and this club may be a genuine title contender.