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NBA Notes: Struggling From the Line

   by Al McMordie - 04/10/2011

Outside shooting, physical defense in the paint and rebounding make all the Sports Center 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, clutch play and free throw shooting.

Let's take a look at free throw shooting. The Oklahoma City Thunder are riding a red-hot run down the stretch, an impressive 14-3 SU, 10-6-1 spread run. That included a key sweep of Denver last week, even winning at Denver as a +4 dog, 101-94. In fact, this team is 3-1 SU/ATS its last 4 times as a dog. They have a great offense, No. 5 in the NBA in points, and a new-found defense with the mid-season addition of center Kendrick Perkins.

They also have something else: Oklahoma City is No. 1 in the NBA in free throw shooting as a team. 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. Making freebies is another edge to have on your side when examining whether a team might cover the spread or not.

Note that the Thunder are 20-7 ATS in their last 27 games as an underdog of 5.0-10 and 29-14 ATS in their last 43 road games vs. a team with a home winning percentage of greater than .600. Oklahoma City has won eight of 10 and sits in fourth place. The Thunder can finish no worse than fourth, and they could climb as high as second if the Lakers and Mavericks stumble.

Portland is No. 3 in the league in free throw shooting, another team that's been on a nice run down the stretch, 4-1 SU/ATS. The Blazers are also motivated, as they will be in the playoffs and some seeding is at stake.

Portland technically sits in sixth place, but their half-game lead over New Orleans is a bit of a mirage, since New Orleans has played one fewer game and has the same number of losses as the Blazers. Since the Hornets won their season series with Portland 3-1, the Blazers cannot finish above New Orleans in the standings without the Hornets losing at least one of their final three games. Portland could finish anywhere from 5 to 8, although Denver is in the driver's seat to grab the No. 5 spot.

Note that one year ago around this time the Trail Blazers also had a red-hot run down the stretch, even against the spread at 8-4 ATS. Marcus Camby improved the rebounding and inside defense after being acquired at the trade deadline. And at the time the Blazers were No. 3 in the NBA in free throws, a strong 79%, just like this season. 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.

A year ago the Mavericks were No. 1 in the NBA in free throw shooting, but have slipped to No. 8 this season. They have also been in a late season funk, a 1-4 SU/ATS run, more to do with defense than free throws, but still not being as great at the charity stripe certainly hasn't helped their cause on the court - and at the betting window in close games. One year ago they beat Portland despite scoring only 83 points, as 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. At the time Nowitzki had made 68 straight free throws.

Now let's flip it around for a moment: the four bottom teams in the NBA from the charity stripe are the Magic, Pistons, Kings and Clippers. Three have been underachievers and big money burners. Detroit may have packed it in and plays two of its final three games on the road, and the Pistons are 0-7 ATS in their last 7 road games.

A year ago Detroit was also terrible from the charity stripe. They 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. 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.

The schedule-maker didn't do the Clippers any favors, ending the season playing 5 of 7 on the road. They failed to cover again at the Dallas Mavericks in a 107-96 loss, as Dallas trailed by 16 in the first quarter, then took control with a 22-4 spurt in the third. After which they got blown out at Houston, so this team seems to have packed it in. LA shot just 50% from the line against the Rockets. Note that the Clippers are 21-45 ATS in their last 66 road games vs. a team with a winning home record and 5-16 ATS in their last 21 when their opponent allows 100 points or more in their previous game.

Home court and playoff seeding are things to watch in the final week of the regular season. Teams like the 76ers, Knicks, Celtics, Heat, Blazers, Hornets and Grizzlies are all battling for playoff seeding. Memphis has won eight of 10 and plays host to New Orleans before wrapping up with road games against Portland and the Clippers. If the Grizzlies win out, it could set up a three-way tie with the Blazers and Hornets. In that case, New Orleans would finish sixth, Memphis seventh and Portland eighth. The Blazers can avoid a three-way tie, however, simply by beating the Grizzlies on Tuesday night at the Rose Garden.

It is something to keep in mind in the playoffs, too. Remember that one year ago the worst free throw shooting teams in the postseason were the Beasts of the East, Orlando and Cleveland, who both ended up getting knocked out by the Celtics.

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