It’s time to address the nonsensical notions that permeate NBA message boards and social media pages when it comes to free throws, their influence on the game(s), and the teams or individuals that are allegedly favored and outcomes that are influenced as a result.
People have Twitter-length arguments coupled with Snapchat disappearing memories, so their argument is about the last game, series, or for their favorite player and oftentimes against iconic legends, like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
Before the series even started, the notion was that whoever got the majority of whistles in the Los Angeles Lakers-Golden State Series would – and did – win the series.
So by that notion, are the Denver Nuggets set to sweep the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals after getting 20 trips to the line to Miami’s two?
Hard to make a call like that seeing as James and the Lakers racked up 107 trips to the line to Denver’s 81 in the Western Conference Finals, yet netted zero wins despite James’ best heroics, a damn site for who Dillon “Diarrhea of the Mouth” Brooks called ‘an old man.’
Whether you call it the elephant in the arena or the 800 lb. gorilla at the free throw line, it time to digest this. I know no one reads lengthy pieces much anymore these days, much less stat-laden articles, but humor me.
The best way to win your argument is by knowing what the hell you’re talking about; and I know what I’m talking about.
Facts. God forbid. Numbers don’t lie.
So how do you eat an elephant? That’s right – one bite at a time.
Here are a few morsels:
********** PLAY-IN GAMES **********
|Atlanta Hawks||Miami Heat|
The Atlanta Hawks made the soft-looking Miami Heat pay from the field (46%), not from the free throw line, where the Heat outperformed the Hawks by shooting 80 percent to Atlanta’s paltry 59 percent. Trae Young scored 25 points and the Hawks’ bench – Bogdan Bogdanovic, Jalen Johnson, Onyeka Onkongwu, and Saddiq Bey – combined for another 53. Jimmy Butler only had 21 points. Young went to the line nine times and hit for eight; the rest of the Hawks were horrible, but won the game – DEBUNKED
|Minnesota Timberwolves||Los Angeles Lakers|
Anthony Davis stood much, much taller than his fellow University of Kentucky alum, Karl-Anthony Towns, going for 24 points and 15 rebounds to ignite the Los Angeles Lakers’ improbable run from the play-in to the Western Conference Finals. It took overtime and 30 points and 10 rebounds from LeBron James as well. Davis went to the free throw line six times; James only three. – DEBUNKED.
|Chicago Bulls||Toronto Raptors|
Zach LaVine got to the line 15 times of the Bulls’ 22 trips, converting on 13. Toronto spent a ton of the game at the charity stripe – Pascal Siakam made 11 trips, O.G. Anunoby had eight, Scottie Barnes seven, and a half dozen for Fred VanVleet; but only hit for 50 percent of their opportunities, with Siakam and Anunoby both well under .500 on the night. So they honestly lost the game from their inability to make free throws. – DEBUNKED
|Oklahoma City Thunder||New Orleans Pelicans|
This game was evenly matched from a free throw perspective. It was Oklahoma City’s explosive 39-24 third quarter that stormed the favored Pelicans in this play-in game. OKC literally brought the thunder at the free throw line, though, shooting 87.5 percent. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was eight-for-eight. New Orleans converted at a similar rate, hitting 25-0f-30 on the night, with Brandon Ingram leading the way with 11 trips to the line. – DEBUNKED
|Chicago Bulls||Miami Heat|
DeMar DeRozan got to the line nine times, while Bam Adebayo and Max Strus did as well (eight times apiece), while Jimmy Butler went there 10 times. The Heat shot 87.5 percent as a team while Chicago shot 73.3 percent. This game was also won with Miami running away with it in the fourth quarter, 35-23. They wanted it more. – DEBUNKED
|Oklahoma City Thunder||Minnesota Timberwolves|
The shorter Thunder, coupled with unbridled enthusiasm from their previous victory, sent the more-experienced Timberwolves to the line six more times. Rudy Gobert went over half of the time for Minnesota, hitting for nine. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was assertive again, and perfect again – this time hitting 100 percent on all 12 of his opportunities. But Minnesota ran away with this game after the first quarter ended, outsourcing the Thunder by nine, seven, and eight over the last three quarters, respectively. – DEBUNKED
********** FIRST ROUND GAMES **********
|Brooklyn Nets (73)||Philadelphia 76ers (61)|
In the first sweep of the playoffs, Philadelphia looked like a legit contender, even though it was over the scrappy Nets, despite netting only 61 total trips to the stripe over the quartet of games. – DEBUNKED
|Atlanta Hawks (102)||Boston Celtics (99)|
Boston also notched fewer trips to the free throw line in a surprising six-game series with the Hawks. Atlanta won one at home and then took a second at Boston, where the Hawks won by a deuce, hitting all 10 of their free throws on the night. – DEBUNKED
|New York Knicks (127)||Cleveland Cavaliers (93)|
The Knicks made a living at the charity stripe in their first playoff series since Atlanta ousted them in the shortened 2021 season. After a fairly even first game, the Knicks found a way to get inside the paint and inside the Cavaliers’ heads by getting to the line nine more times in Game Two, nine more again in Game Four, and 14 times more in the closeout Game Five. Jalen Brunson got there 20 times in the series, and R.J. Barrett went almost as many (19) over Games Four and Five. – SOME CREDIBILITY (I would argue that the NBA fell in love with the Knicks being back in the playoffs).
|Golden State Warriors (176)||Sacramento Kings (180)|
In what was arguably the best series of this year’s playoffs from a competitive standpoint, the Warriors and Kings racked up the most combined trips to the foul line with 356 stops in play for free throws. It certainly seemed as if the whistles favored the home team up until Game Seven, where the Warriors shot three more free throws despite being in Sacramento. The wins just went to the most aggressive team(s) in each game. – DEBUNKED
|Miami Heat (103)||Milwaukee Bucks (107)|
Quite honestly, once Giannis Antetokuonmpo went down, the Bucks were out of this series and out of the playoffs – mentally and physically, despite having the best regular season performance in 2022-23. The Heat shot slightly better than Milwaukee, 74.8 percent to 71 percent overall. They also outshot the Bucks from field goal percent and three-point efficiency. – DEBUNKED
|Minnesota Timberwolves (121)||Denver Nuggets (109)|
The Nuggets made quick work of the Timberwolves, despite going to the line 12 fewer times over the series’ five games. Anthony Edwards put forth a couple of strong performances for Minnesota, but it was too much Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, nothing to do with free throws. – DEBUNKED
|Los Angeles Clippers (132)||Phoenix Suns (144)|
For a five-game series, the Suns lived at the free-throw line so often that they started getting their team mail forward there instead of the Footprint Center. In Game Three alone, Phoenix ended up there 46 times – remember, the 76ers took four games to get to 61 against the Nets. Kevin Durant made his living there with 45 (95.6%) total attempts over five games, and Devin Booker was there 35 times (85.7%). For L.A., It was Russell Westbrook – playing like his old self – getting there 25 times and shooting .880, while Kawhi Leonard shot a comparable .882 with only one-third as many trips as Westbrook. Fitting, since Leonard only played about one-third of the season. – DEBUNKED, despite serious consideration.
|Los Angeles Lakers (130)||Memphis Grizzlies (115)|
LeBron James got to the line 31 times in this series, and Anthony Davis 29 for almost a combined half of L.A.’s free throw attempts. But no one figured on the X-factor being a white self-proclaimed hillbilly from Arkansas. That’s right, Austin Reaves got to the charity stripe 24 times against the Grizzlies, hitting on 83.3 percent of his chances to get a freebie. Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Desmond Bane were studs with Ja Morant out of commission, but it wasn’t enough for Memphis. Morant’s aggressive style of play gave him 26 opportunities, but also cost him 12 fouls. Though there was plenty of consideration here for name recognition, Los Angeles’ trips came due to aggressive competition, not favoritism from the officials. – DEBUNKED
********** SEMI-FINAL ROUND **********
|Miami Heat (143)||New York Knicks (168)|
New York continued to stack up the trips to the line by going hard in the paint, getting 25 more trips to the line than Miami in the six-pack series. But Jimmy Butler was more aggressive and seemingly more comfortable being so in this series, getting to the line 53 times himself (.868). Jalen Brunson had 46 trips, R.J. Barrett 35, and Julius Randle had 35. But it was not enough to counter Butler’s 123 points (24.6 ppg). – DEBUNKED
|Philadelphia 76ers (149)||Boston Celtics (153)|
In a seven-game series that was average at best with the up-and-down play of both teams, the penultimate player at getting to the line, was outdone by his teammate Joel Embiid and his opponent, Jayson Tatum, who – to date – has the most points scored in this year’s playoffs at 543. Embiid made 60 trips and converted on 53 of them, while Tatum scored 48 points in this series at the free throw line in his 57 trips. James Harden, despite a couple of strong games in the series, ghosted out again, and only earned 44 trips to the stripe in another second round exit for the 76ers. – DEBUNKED
|Phoenix Suns (123)||Denver Nuggets (139)|
Phoenix seemed more intimidated than aggressive in the series against the Nuggets, only netting five trips to the free throw line in Game Two of this series after 46 in Game Three against the Clippers. But then again, Ivica Zubac is no Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets figured out how to consistently get to the line, averaging just over 23 trips per game, with Jokic heading there 41 times, Jamal Murray 25, and 20 each for Bruce Brown and Aaron Gordon. For the setting Suns, they were limited to Kevin Durant’s 51 and Devin Booker’s 32. Those two were the only Phoenix players hitting more than 75 percent, as well. But that’s Monty Williams’ fault, right? – DEBUNKED
|Los Angeles Lakers (160)||Golden State Warriors (100)|
This is the series where people will argue that name recognition and home court advantage spelled home free throw line advantage, and therefore, series advantage and win. And, well, the Laker did win the series against the defending champs, garnering some will argue, 60 more trips to the charity stripe in their favor. Golden State being Golden State and shooting 263 shots from downtown, only making 93, were hobbled from the outset, shooting 43-of-106 from the field and 21-of-53 from downtown won’t net many trips to the free throw line. Anthony Davis went 39 times in the series, the most for L.A. No Warrior went to the line more than 19 (Andrew Wiggins) in the six-game series. That’s why the champs lost, not because the Lakers got more favorable whistles. – DEBUNKED, even though the victor got 60 more whistles.
********** CONFERENCE FINALS **********
|Miami Heat (132)||Boston Celtics (145)|
Yet another seven game series, but this went seven games because the Celtics were utterly disappointing, despite getting 13 more trips to the line more than Miami. Despite the big performances throughout the playoffs by Jayson Tatum, he was at his most disappointing when the Heat went into their zone defenses. Tatum went to the line 51 times and hit for 90.2 percent. The next closest was Marcus Smart’s 25 total trips through seven games. Centers Rob Williams and Al Horford only went 13 and two times, respectively over the series, proving that the Heat’s zone paralyzed the defending Eastern Conference champs. Unacceptable for a team that went to the NBA Finals a year ago and it may be time to break up the Celtics. Jimmy Butler got there 54 times and the Heat aren’t even a big team. – DEBUNKED
|Los Angeles Lakers (107)||Denver Nuggets (81)|
Speaking of disappointing, it was a hard pill to swallow watching the Lakers get swept by the Nuggets. But was it as much disappointment as it was just Denver being the more superior team … and younger. No one can take away the fact that L.A. got 26 more whistles than the Nuggets did, that LeBron James played out of his mind (and body) in the first half of Game Four (finishing with 40 in the game to match Anthony Davis’ 40 in Game One). The Nuggets just shot better in the series (49.3%) and from downtown (40.3%). Nikola Jokic went to the stripe 27 times over the four games and Jamal Murray notched 20 trips. Davis went 40 times and James went for 29, but Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura were not as much of a factor – inexperience or fatigue? Either way, it cost the Lakers in what may have been James’ last shot at another championship. At least Davis finished with a league-high, playoff-high (to date) 225 total rebounds. – DEBUNKED
********** NBA FINALS **********
|Miami Heat||Denver Nuggets|
Okay, one could make the argument heading into tonight’s Game Two of the NBA Finals that the whistles favored the home team, feel-good story Nuggets, 20-2. That’d be all well and good if the Nuggets weren’t up by nine after the first quarter, 17 at the half, and 21 after three quarters of play. Even more telling when your team’s only two trips to the line came because a guy from Wheeling Jesuit was your most aggressive player when it comes to drawing fouls – two points and two rebounds. Nikola Jokic got to the line 12 times himself in the win. The Heat want more whistles? Get into the paint, Mr. Butler and Mr. Adebayo. Haywood Highsmith isn’t leading you to a title. – To be continued, but DEBUNKED
I could have just said the whistle thing is all bullsh*t, or just another conspiracy theory; but some of you had to be shown. There’s truth in numbers – they don’t lie or form opinions.
As you can see, whistles typically favor the team that’s the aggressor … or, as Julius Randle puts it, the team that “wants it more … “
Tracy Graven is the Senior NBA Analyst for BackSportsPage.com.
He has written the NBA, done NBA Radio, and appeared as a guest for the last 21+ years for HoopsWorld, Swish Magazine, HoopsHype, the Coach Scott Fields Show, NBARadioShow.com, and is also tackling the NFL, NCAA, and will be pinch-hitting on some Major League Baseball coverage for BackSportsPage.
He’s spent 21 years in locker rooms in Orlando, Boise (CBA, G League), San Antonio, Phoenix, Denver, Oklahoma City, and Atlanta.
A corporate trainer by day, he currently resides in SEC Country near Knoxville, Tennessee.
Reach him on Twitter at @RealTMoneyMedia
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