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Struggling From the Line

   by Al McMordie - 04/13/2010

Outside shooting, physical defense in the paint and rebounding make all the SportsCenter highlights. And they should, being such a huge part of winning basketball. But some of the most important aspects when it comes to covering numbers can be found in subtle things, such as team play, boxing out, and free throw shooting.

Let’s take a look at free throw shooting. The Portland Trail Blazers are riding a red-hot run down the stretch, both SU and ATS. Marcus Camby has improved the rebounding and inside defense since being acquired at the trade deadline. But the Blazers are also No. 3 in the NBA in free throws, a strong 79%. When a game – and a point spread cover – are on the line, you want the team that you backed to be able to make freebies at crunch time.

How many times have you seen a game in college or the pros come right down around the number oddsmakers made? Then you watch one team miss three of four free throws, keeping alive tickets that should have been dead and vice versa.

The Blazers just played a key game against Dallas, as both teams are in an intense battle for playoff positioning. The Mavericks beat the Blazers 83-77 at the Rose Garden to keep pace with the Denver Nuggets. Dallas also clinched the Southwest Division with the win at Portland, and the Mavericks' remaining games are all winnable. Dallas is 2-1 against Denver this season and therefore holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Even though Dallas only scored 83 points, Dirk Nowitzki had 40! Dallas was a +5 dog but got the straight up win and a huge factor was free throw shooting, nailing 30 of 35 from the charity stripe. It was Nowitzki's 20th double-double of the season and he has made 68 straight free throws, dating back to March 29. Note that the Mavericks are No. 1 in the NBA in free throw shooting, a sizzling .817% and on a 7-2 ATS run.

Oklahoma City has been a huge surprise in the NBA this season, both straight up and against the number. They are No. 2 in the league in free throw shooting, sandwiched between Dallas and Portland and on a 7-5 ATS run. Last week they were a 4-point favorite over Phoenix and won by 5 points. Certainly defense was the story, as the Thunder limited Phoenix to a season-low 34 points after halftime.

After shooting 58 percent in the opening half, the Suns were held to 31 percent shooting in the second half and scored only 12 points in the third quarter -- the lowest total in any period from a team averaging an NBA-best 110.4 points. But a closer look at the box score finds the Thunder hitting 22 of 27 freebies (81.5%), right around their season average. And for the point spread cover, they needed every one!

Now let’s flip it around for a moment: Three of the bottom six teams in the NBA from the charity stripe are the Pistons, Kings and Clippers. All three have been underachievers and big money burners.

Last week the Kings were +7.5 home dogs to the Blazers and Spurs and failed to cover both games narrowly. They shot 60% and 62% from the line in those games. A few more made free throws and they go from 0-2 ATS to 2-0.

Detroit just went through an astonishing 0-10 SU/ATS stretch and the first three games of that awful run were very close to the Las Vegas number, yet they went 0-3 ATS. Remember last season when the Pistons struggled to score? The offense was next-to-last in the league in scoring and they averaged the third-fewest free throws made per game in the NBA. Making free throws AND getting to the line are two important keys.

After blowing a pair of games at the line a year ago because of late free throws, Rodney Stuckey commented, "It felt like we were the Memphis Tigers in the NCAA championship game," after Stuckey missed a pair of free throws in the fourth against the Celtics and Cavaliers. "Once one person missed a free throw, we all missed our free throws." That may be funny to Stuckey, but all those missed free throws hurt backers of the Pistons, a 4 to 5-point favorite that failed to cover.

This season Atlanta is in the middle of the pack in free throw shooting, though that is an improvement from last season. A year ago the Hawks stumbled through a 6-11 ATS stretch, because of lousy free throw shooting and blowing leads. At the time they were the league's second-worst free-throw percentage team. "We've coughed up leads in four or five games this season because we can’t seem to get the job done at the free-throw line," said coach Mike Woodson. "It has been our Achilles' heel."

And, speaking of not getting the job done. How about last Sunday's Lakers/Blazers game when Kobe Bryant missed two free throws, and then Derek Fisher converted only his second free throw in the game's waning seconds, to blow an opportunity for the Lakers to take the lead. And both Bryant and Fisher are normally great free throw shooters, not to mention clutch players, so it was awfully strange to watch that development.

The Playoffs are upon us, and with there being little difference between the teams -- especially in the Western Conference -- look for statistics like free throw shooting to decide many of the games. Good luck, as always...Big Al McMordie.

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