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Old 05-11-2011, 04:00 PM   #1
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Default May 11: Playoffs, Round 2 - Memphis Grizzlies @ Oklahoma Thunder, Game 5, 9:30pm ET

By Carl Bialik

It took buzzer-beating three-point shots for the Memphis Grizzlies to extend Game Four of their Western Conference semifinal series against the Oklahoma City Thunder to a first overtime, and then a second on Monday night. But the Thunder sealed the game, and leveled the series, with their characteristically excellent free-throw shooting, hitting all 11 of their foul shots in the gameís three overtimes.

Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are best known for their creativity and athleticism, but they derive much of their offensive value from their proficiency in one of the gameís most basic, and most boring, fundamentals: hitting free throws. Durant tied with Kevin Martin for most free throws made in the regular season (594) and Westbrook ranked fourth, while Durant made 88% of his attempts, 10th best in the league, and Westbrook hit 84.2%, well above the league average of 76.3%. Durant, in particular, is unusual for taking and making so many free throws. In each of the last three seasons heís averaged at least six free throws while hitting more than 85% of his attempts. Thatís been accomplished just 18 other times in the NBA in the last two decades ó including twice by Martin and six times by Dirk Nowitzki, whose Dallas Mavericks will face the winner of the Memphis-Oklahoma City series in the Western finals.

With Durant and Westbrook leading the way, combining for 57% of the Thunderís made free throws, Oklahoma City was far and away the best team in the league at taking advantage of unguarded shots this season. James Harden and Jeff Green ranked just behind the teamís stars in free-throws made and each also hit more than 81%. Overall, the Thunder hit 82.3% of their free-throw attempts, best in the league, and also topped the league in free throws made, with 1,977. (The Thunder also rank first in both categories in the playoffs.) The Thunderís free-throw percentage was the fifth highest since 1946-47, and no team ever has shot at such a high percentage from the free-throw line while also making so many foul shots. Oklahoma City is the first team to lead the league in both categories in the regular season since NBA finalist Utah did it in 1997-98. And before Utah, no team did it since the ABA-NBA merger besides the Denver Nuggets of Kiki Vandeweghe and Alex English, a franchise that led in both categories each season from 1980-81 to 1983-84.

Unlike the í97-í98 Jazz, which also led the league in field-goal percentage and was near the top in three-point percentage, this yearís Thunder was just a bit above average in field-goal percentage and below average on threes. Their prowess at the line seems to come from a lot of practice and ability from that distance, rather than an overall high quality of shooting.

Oklahoma Cityís knack for getting to the free-throw line and converting culminated in the Thunderís Game Four win against Memphis, when the Thunder hit more free throws in a playoff game while shooting at least 80% from the line than any other team since 2003 and tied for the fifth most in the last 21 seasons. Oklahoma City missed just eight of 50 free throws in Game Four. Two of those misses were costly: Kendrick Perkins ó the worst free-throw shooter on the Oklahoma City roster to get many minutes in the regular season ó missed two attempts with a three-point lead in the last minute of regulation, allowing the Grizzlies to force overtime. But then Oklahoma City clamped down in the extra periods. Memphis, remarkably, was even more accurate from the foul line, in fewer attempts, hitting 37 of 40 attempts. That was uncharacteristic: Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol combined to hit 31 of their 34 attempts, though none hit even 76% of his regular-season attempts. The Grizzlies might have to keep up that kind of free-throw shooting to hang with Oklahoma City ó or try repeating the formula from Game Three, when they sent the Thunder to the free-throw line just 23 times in 53 minutes, instead of 50 times in 63 minutes.
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