Four Meaningful and Meaningless Free Throws


Grade 9th Math problem

Photo: Arjin J/Flickr

It was one of those scenarios late in the game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder that coaches spend hours drilling their players on: fourth quarter with the game on the line at the free throw line. As a coach, you condition your players as best you can for these moments by not running simple free throw drills in practice, but drills that incorporate sprints and free throws in order to simulate that fourth quarter fatigue. Though there is no substitute for the live rounds of an actual game, you do your best to prepare your team. When you’re actually in the game, your goal of course is to get the ball to your best player who is also, ideally, one of your best players.

On Saturday night, Kevin Love and the Timberwolves found themselves in this position with 0:30 seconds to go after Love was fouled as he hit a driving layup to tie the game at 111-111.

Love, an 82.8 percent free throw shooter coming into the game, was nearly a sure thing to put the Timberwolves in the lead late at home. However, the shot fell harmlessly off of the rim and into the awaiting arms of Kevin Durant. After the Thunder’s timeout, Durant would hit the go-ahead jumper with 0:04 seconds left to give the Thunder a lead, but the Timberwolves would have one more chance. Minnesota got the ball to Love and Kendrick Perkins fouled him from behind the line with 0:02 seconds left to give Love the opportunity to take back the lead.

Yes, after a week of fans complaining about how Love didn’t get star calls or wasn’t a star after Ed Malloy’s no call a week ago, Love received to trips to the line late in the game.

Free throw attempt one was a miss, but there was still an opportunity to play for overtime. Yet, the tie was out of the question when his next free throw wouldn’t drop either, making it a desperate time that called for desperate measures. Love’s only hope was to intentionally miss the shot by bouncing it off of the rim and hoping that one of his teammates would be able to tip it in for the tie, but that wasn’t the case, and the ball missed all of the rim and bounced off of the backboard, which is illegal. Thunder ball and game over after Durant hits two free throws on the other end.

After the game, Love cited fatigue as a factor in his misses; his first one with 0:27 left came up short, a sign of having tired legs. Tired legs, of course, will happen when you play 43 minutes in a game. Should Love still have been able to hit one of those four attempts in the final minute of the game? Most likely, but there are bigger issues that loom for the Timberwolves than an 83 percent free throw shooter missing three free throws since he typically converts them at such a high rate.

The bigger issue here is the Timberwolves’ ability to finish out close games like the one they had in front of them tonight. Granted, the Thunder are one of the best teams in the NBA, but they had them shorthanded and on the ropes at home and couldn’t seal the deal. Yes, part of that was a not-of-this-world performance from Durant, but Saturday night was telling of a season long problem of struggling in close games. Here are some figures to figure:

– Remember this note in mind as you read on: In 33 games this season the Timberwolves shoot 43.4 percent from the field; 33.7 percent from three; and 79.1 percent from the line with a +131 point differential this season, according the the NBA Media Stats site.

– In the last five minutes of games decided by five points or less, the team’s shooting percentages drop to 36.8/26.7/72.4 percent (FG/3PT/FT) and have a -8 differential to go with a 1-12 record in these situations.

– In the last three minutes of games decided by five points or less, their percentages drop to 31.9/13.6/66.7 with a -9 differential and a 1-11 record.

– It gets worse. In the last minute of games decided by five points or less, Minnesota’s efficiency drops yet again, this time to 31.8/13.3/37.5 percent and a differential of -13 and a record of 1-11.

– Finally, in the last thirty-seconds of games decided by five points or less, their numbers bottom out at 17.6 percent from the floor and are 0-5 from the line in these situations. Additionally, they’ve at least made one of three attempts from deep, but have a differential of -22 in these situations.

So, Love’s missed free throws tonight have actually been indicative of a much bigger problem for the Timberwolves all season long: late game execution, on both ends. They’re not getting the production they need with the game on the line offensively, and they’re not getting the stops they need on defense to put opponents away. For a Western Conference team that is a in playoff contention, these are valuable opportunities to put some distance between them and their opponents. Currently, the Timberwolves sit tied for ninth place and are three games behind Dallas for the eighth seed. With two other teams (Denver and New Orleans) tying their record and Memphis a game and a half back, these games feel all the more crucial.

It’s January and their schedule eases up considerably, but given the depth of the Western Conference, having so many close games slip through your fingertips feels like they carry a greater significance because they could come back to haunt you in April. Don’t get me wrong: this is not a call to panic. Think of this as more of heightening the urgency, or whatever. As some have said, these things are correctable, but they eventually need to be corrected. It doesn’t do you any good to be five games out of a playoff spot with four games left saying, “Hey, their problems are at least correctable!” You can only hang your hat on that for so long.

I hate to be this guy to call out the problem and not offer out a solution because that’s a little assy to do, but that’s all I have right now. Maybe the problem is not having enough go-to plays to use late in a game and essentially adapting as you go instead of knowing exactly what you’re going to do in a certain situation. And the bench probably needs to score more than five points, probably, but given the abilities of their reserves, it may not be realistic to expect grand/consistent offensive  from them. What I do know is that Love is not the problem; he gives them their best chance to win. Players miss shots, even the good ones, and sometimes that happens at the worst possible moment. After all, you can drill and drill in practice, but live games are a whole different feel. Saturday night in Minneapolis was about more than just a few missed free throws.

Derek James

In addition to writing for Hardwood Paroxysm, Derek James covers the Minnesota Timberwolves for 1500ESPN in Minneapolis. Derek is also a co-editor for SB Nation's At the Hive-- the best Charlotte Hornets blog around. He often finds himself writing too many words on irrelevant players. Unrelated to LeBron James, but taught him everything he knows.