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NBA Notes: Struggling From the Line

   by Al McMordie - 04/20/2012

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 Milwaukee Bucks had a terrific run down the stretch to get themselves in position for a possible playoff spot. The key move was the acquisition of shooting guard Monte Ellis from Golden State, that not only gave them a dynamite offensive force but, teamed with Brandon Jennings, gave Milwaukee an outstanding backcourt punch, a defensive handful for anyone.

The Bucks went on a 14-8 spread run, as well, during that run. Lost in the shuffle of the addition of Ellis is that the Bucks are one of the best free throw shooting teams, something that helps with late wins – and late ATS covers. In a win this month at Washington, the Bucks covered by the number by 7 points – and hit 22 of 29 free throws, a 76% clip from the charity stripe. In a 7-point win over the Hawks as a 2-point favorite, the Bucks won the game by outscoring Atlanta by 8 points in the fourth quarter – and nailing 94% of their freebies (15 of 16) for the game). Oh, the Hawks went 59% from the line, missing 7 freebies. The Bucks are also 38-12-2 ATS in their last 52 against the NBA Atlantic division.

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.

He best free throw shooting team is the powerhouse Oklahoma City Thunder, for the second year in a row. They’ve been a solid cover-machine, as well. Last week the Thunder dealt Phoenix a blow in its scramble to make the playoffs with a 109-97 victory over the Suns on the road.

The big story was not Kevin Durant or Mike Westbrook, but underrated James Harden’s career-high 40 points. Harden, who starred at nearby Arizona State, put on a show for the locals and made 12 of 17 shots overall. Less noticed is that he was 11-of-11 from the free throw line in 33 minutes. Oklahoma City was a sizzling 31 of 34 from the free throw line (91%), while Phoenix was just 72% and missed 11 freebies. The Suns are in the middle of the pack in free throw shooting, and not quite the offensive machine you might think if you like to play totals: The under is 31-15 in the Suns last 46 games against the Western Conference.

A few years ago Detroit 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.

After blowing a pair of games at the line that year because of late free throws, Pistons guard 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.

That same season Atlanta was an awful throw shooting team, as the Hawks stumbled through a 6-11 ATS stretch late because of lousy free throw shooting while blowing leads. At the time they were the league's second-worst free-throw percentage. "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 the head coach. "It has been our Achilles heel."

This season the Orlando Magic is the worst free throw shooting team in the NBA, not that they need any more things to worry about in this train wreck of a season. The Magic is 3-8 ATS in their last 11 games vs. a team with a winning record and 5-11 ATS in their playing on two days rest.

And keep this in mind during the 2012 playoffs: The Clippers are the second worst free throw shooting team and the Bulls are fourth worst in the NBA. Think that charity stripe weakness will come back to haunt either of them when the games mean more in the postseason?

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