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NBA BASKETBALL April 24, 2002
Shaq Passes the Brick to Baron and Big Ben

Laker center no longer the player most likely to hurt his team's playoff chances by struggling at the stripe



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For the first time since the Dawn of Shaq, no longer is Mr. O'Neal the free-throw shooter most likely to cost his team a playoff series. In fact, Shaq's growing confidence and competence at the stripe -- and frequent visits -- could well tip the balance in the Lakers' favor in some fierce battles for the Western Conference crown.

More likely candidates to cost their team are Ben Wallace of the Pistons and Baron Davis of the Hornets. Although each has correctable technical flaws, it's risky to tinker with technique at playoff time. Then again, free throws are a lot like putting, and many a golfer has won immediately after switching to a cross-hand grip or goofy long putter.

Bricklayer Ben averages just three free throw attempts a game, so on a typical night his 42 percent "success" rate costs the Pistons a measly single point (assuming Ben shot a league-average 75 percent instead). Of course, Ben more than makes up for that point with four swats, countless changed shots, two steals, 13 boards and inspirational all-out play. But the other night Danny Ainge raised the ugly specter of a playoff Hack-a-Ben strategy. Remember when Portland, under Mike Dunleavy's direction, made a mockery of the game by sending Shaq to the strip on nearly every fourth-quarter possession? The tactic brought bad karma to the Blazers, and they lost the game and the series. But that doesn't mean some Eastern Conference coach won't try it on Ben.

I got a good look at Ben's free-throw form a couple of months ago, when he went 2 for 9 in a televised game against Orlando. It should have been "Ben Wallace Bobblehead Night," to take advantage of Ben's bobblehead delivery. Ben works hard on every phase of his game, including his achilles heel. But he has bouncy legs (or at least he did on the night in question) that create the bobblehead effect.

If you watch Darrell Armstrong and Peja Stojakovic at the stripe, their heads will lower smoothly, in conjunction with their legs, as they initiate their stroke with a downward bend of their flexed knees. Their heads will rise smoothly as they unflex their knees and follow through. Ben, on the other hand, gets the bobble action going with two or more tiny bends of the legs DURING the stroke -- that is, after the pre-stroke multi-flexing of the legs common to many fine shooters (e.g., Reggie Miller and Karl Malone). Sometimes Ben completes his leg action before releasing the ball, resulting in a shot that grazes the front of the rim or hits nothing but air. Ben needs a single, deeper bend, and it needs to be precise, rhythmic and in synch with his arm motion. Once ingrained, his distance control will dramatically improve. (Mix in a reliable jumper and you've got an MVP.)

Baron Davis, at 58 percent, is an unlikely target for intentional fouls, and then only in the last minute by a trailing team. But that's a dismal figure for a guard with a soft touch, and his poor free-throw shooting seemed to have affected his style of play late in the regular season. Or maybe he was steering clear of contact so, come playoff time, he'd be in one piece.

One thing is certain: Davis is at his best as a fearless penetrator in the Iverson mold. The more he gets to the line, the better the Hornets are. Eight for 10 at the stripe rather than 6 for 10 (or worse, a timid 1 for 2) can turn close playoff losses into wins.

Davis has worked hard to become a good jumpshooter, but at the line he's all arms and no legs. The result is erratic distance control. He needs to develop precise, rhythmic leg action and make his arm motion more compact. Three excellent leg-action role models of similar stature to Davis -- each of whom shoots 89 percent -- are Darrell Armstrong (pronounced bend from upright posture), Troy Hudson (subtle bend from upright posture) and Steve Nash (pronounced bend from a crouch). As with Ben, consistent leg action will reduce Baron's margin of error.

As for Shaq, he has never looked better at the stripe than in the 2001-02 home stretch. In his final eight regular-season games he sank 62 of 86, or 72.1 percent. That's an average of 8 for 11 per game. If he keeps it up, Shaq's free-throw shooting goes from a liability to an asset. If he keeps it up and lives at the line, the Lakers are a lock.

Assuming Shaq maintains his free-throw groove, the smart opponents will play him tough but use the bear hug only to prevent dunks and lay-ins. (Better to surrender 1.4 points than 2, though if I were commissioner a hugged player would get two shots and the ball. Hugging isn't a hoop skill, so why reward it?) Also, the fewer attempts Shaq gets, the greater the likelihood he'll come ungrooved. Foes are better off with Shaq going 3 for 5 or even 4 for 5 each game (which might drop to 2 for 5 by Game 7) than 11 for 15 or 18 for 26. Foes are better off with their starting center averaging 35 minutes than a foul-plagued 21.

Shaq entered the 2001 playoffs nearly as hot, sinking 68 percent over his last 16 regular-season games, though he cooled off to 53.5 percent in the playoffs. That might happen again, but foes shouldn't count on it.

Last year, Shaq had new-and-improved shooting mechanics working in his favor. (Click this link for my analysis last spring in Slate magazine: http://slate.msn.com/tagteam/entries/01-05-01_105348.asp)

With the help of former LSU sharpshooter and Aussie Olympian Ed Palubinskas, Shaq learned to initiate his stroke by bending his flexed knees rather than straightening them out, and he shortened his arm motion by moving the release point from behind his head to in front of it. The result: better distance control and an arc.

Still, Shaq looked "mechanical." He'd lose his rhythm not just game to game, but within games.

This season Shaq struggled early, sinking just half of his first 300 attempts. But since January 22 he's drained 59 percent. That's hardly worth bragging about, but in the late-season 72-percent stretch Shaq no longer looked mechanical. His two-step delivery -- bring the arms up into shooting position, pause, then initiate the stroke -- is not terrribly rhythm-friendly, which is why no one other than Anthony "Mr. Freeze" Mason utilizes the style. But these days Shaq is looking smoother than ever.

For the sake of the rest of the league, let's hope he's not grooved for good. Hard as it is to imagine, come crunch time in the NBA Finals Rick Carlisle just might have to deliver this message to his gritty Pistons: "Don't foul Shaq!"

Dennis Hans is a writer, an occasional college professor and a former rec-league sharpshooter whose inconsistencies at the stripe sparked an interest in free-throw rhythm and technique. His essays on that topic have appeared in the online Sporting News and Slate; other pieces have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and The Black World Today (tbwt.com), among other outlets. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu

 

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