Getting to the Line Crucial for Thunder
Last season the Thunder shot 80.6 percent from the free throw line, the best mark in the NBA, and eight of the team’s players shot 80 percent or better from the line. In practice, the Thunder puts a heavy emphasis on making the free ones count by incorporating a free throw game into the end of every practice and shootaround. During his first week of training camp, Jones recognized just how proficient his teammates are at the stripe.
“They make all their free throws,” Jones said with amazement. “Whenever they go to the line, they knock down their free throws. When they have our free throw game end, it’s usually the same guys in the same spots because everybody is making their free throws.”
The free throw game involves pairs of players at each of the ten baskets at the INTEGRIS Health Thunder Development Center, with games to 21, playing with ones and twos. Players get two points for a swish and one point for a free throw that is made after hitting the rim or the backboard. The catch is, you can’t go over 21. Based on who wins and loses, players move to different baskets around the court, making it a source of pride to be on the top basket each day.
While games like that one and a general focus on knocking down free throws is integral to them going in, a major facet of the Thunder’s free throw game is actually finding ways to get to the line. Last season Head Coach Scott Brooks’ team scored 20.7 percent of its points from the free throw line, the second highest percentage in the NBA.
“It’s an important part of our game,” Brooks said. “We talk about attacking the basket, we talk about attacking the paint, we talk about drawing two guys on you and then kicking out to open shooters. We have to play that style of play.”
In fact, the Thunder led the NBA in free throw makes per game with 21.3 and attempts per game, with 26.4. The ability to get to the free throw line is undeniably crucial for the Thunder, as evidenced by its 34-8 record last season when attempting more free throws than their opponent, compared to its 13-11 mark when the Thunder shot the same or fewer free throws than the other team.
One of the reasons the Thunder can get to the free throw line so effectively is that the team has aggressive players like Kevin Durant, who finished third in the NBA last season with 501 free throw attempts. Russell Westbrook finished seventh in that same category, and James Harden finished tenth. The reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award winner’s numbers are especially impressive, considering he scored 29.9 percent of his points off free throws last season, second most among players who saw 30 or more minutes of playing time per night.
“We have aggressive players that have an amazing ability to get to the rim quickly and make decisions, and good decisions,” Brooks said. “The free throw line has always been a friend of ours, and that’s why we spend a lot of time working on ways to get there and also working on ways to finish when we’re there.” First and foremost, the Thunder can get those free throw opportunities by executing its primary gameplan – defending well, making a crisp outlet pass and working through the fast break or secondary break.
“There’s no question we want to get into transition,” Brooks said. “We want to get in there through our defense. Our transition offense has improved every year… You know what you’re going to get. You’re going to get a guy that is going to attack the basket, you’re going to get a wide open three or you’re going to get a pick and roll.”
If those quick-hitting opportunities are not available, the Thunder also focuses heavily on creating advantages for themselves in the half-court set. Whether it be getting to the dunker spot between the block and the short corner or creating two-on-one situations in the pick-and-roll to force defenders to make tough decisions, the Thunder continues to work on a number of ways to draw fouls in the half-court.
“We have to be able to get to the free throw line in our half-court set also,” Brooks said. “We have great pick and roll players and we have players who can beat their guy. We’re still finding ways to get everybody involved because we can draw double teams.”