Everything was going well for the Clippers last week in Miami, except for the one thing that had stayed consistent all season.
The NBA’s leader in free throws made and attempted per game had barely reached the free-throw line against the Heat. Making matters worse was that the Clippers, one of the league’s most accurate teams shooting free throws, had made only four of the 10 they’d attempted.
Then they began to look more like themselves.
The Clippers made their next nine consecutive free throws to build a 15-point lead and coach Doc Rivers could breathe easy in the final minutes, knowing he could trust in one of the league’s elite teams at producing, and converting, free throws.
Not every coach feels so assured.
Just ask the Lakers’ Luke Walton.
Whereas free throws have secured several Clippers victories this season, missed chances have derailed several Lakers games, and as both teams enter the regular season’s stretch run, every missed opportunity has become magnified. Two games separate the Clippers, who are eighth in the Western Conference standings, from the Lakers in ninth entering their matchup Thursday at Staples Center, yet the teams are miles apart in free-throw efficiency.
The Clippers (28-23) have made 79.7% of their attempts through their first 51 games, which ranks sixth-best in the league and is on pace to best the franchise record of 79.1% from 2005-06. They also rank fourth in “clutch” situations, making 84.2% of their free throws in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime in which the scoring margin is five points or fewer.
The Lakers (26-25), by contrast, have made 68.7% of their free throws to remain the league’s least-accurate team from the line for a second consecutive season. Only four teams in franchise history have finished with a lower percentage. It last happened 18 seasons ago.
The Lakers can make their free throws in practice, Walton has said. It has just rarely translated in games.
“I’ve seen a little bit of improvement right now,” Walton said Wednesday. “The Houston-[Oklahoma] series trip we shot the ball really well from the free-throw line, and then we’ve struggled. I know 70-something last night [75% against Philadelphia] isn’t great, but for us that’s improvement. So, I think our guys are slowly getting better and more comfortable at the line.”
Rivers, for one, isn’t a believer that bad free-throw shooting teams can will themselves into a dramatic improvement but did acknowledge that progress can surface for short stretches. For the Lakers, progress comes in the form of “clutch” scenarios in which they've made 75.3% of their foul shots to rank 16th across the league.
But even that hasn’t saved them. In one notable example, LeBron James missed two free throws with 12 seconds remaining in overtime against San Antonio in October. James called that “unacceptable” after the defeat but his were just the last of the misses: The Lakers shot 69% in the game.
The Clippers have matched or exceeded the league average of 76% on free throws 34 times this season and are 19-15 in those games. The Lakers have done it a league-low nine times and are 5-4.
If the Lakers haven’t been able to count on free throws, foul shots have generated 20% of their cross-town rival’s points. No other team derives a larger percentage of its scoring from the line this season.
“That's been huge and that's something we didn't know going into the year,” Rivers said. “It was one of the things I said in camp, if we can get to the foul line a lot, it would be huge for us.”
There is no secret sauce behind the Clippers’ shooting, though losing DeAndre Jordan to Dallas in free agency removed a late-game liability (though Jordan, a 44% free-throw shooter in nine seasons with the Clippers, is shooting a career-best 68.5% this season).
Rivers requires players shooting 75% or worse from the line to attempt more free throws each day than those shooting better than that mark. Those shooting 85% or better “don’t have to shoot at all.” Neither are new rules, though, he said.
One of those inching closer to that 85% threshold is rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who often practices with assistant Sam Cassell chattering in his ear.
“Everything in this game is mental, really,” the point guard said. “But being confident at the line and putting the reps in, it adds up.”