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There’s no shame in missing free throws; nobody hits them all. Even airballing (a more common occurrence, even at the NBA level, than you might think) isn’t necessarily a sin — some of the best players of all time have done that. Plus, it’s unlikely that yours is the worst airball of all time, because DeSagana Diop’s probably got you beat there.
Airballing two straight, though? It doesn’t make Blake Griffin any less amazing a basketball player, but still, yipes. That’s Ben Wallace and Dennis Rodman territory. Enough of a bummer to make you make big loud noises and fumble with your mouthguard.
The misses didn’t hurt Griffin’s Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night — L.A. expanded the second-quarter lead you see it holding in the video above, cruising to a 96-82 home win over the visiting Atlanta Hawks behind strong bench play from guards Mo Williams and Eric Bledsoe. But Griffin’s — and the team’s — free-throw woes could prove to be a major problem for a Clippers squad expected to make postseason noise after bringing aboard All-Star point guard Chris Paul back in December.
It’s never been a secret that free-throw shooting is one of Griffin’s (few) weaknesses on the court. The college scouting experts at DraftExpress pegged it as a soft spot coming out of Oklahoma, where Griffin hit at a 61.8 percent clip in two years as a Sooner. Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times wrote about it during Griffin’s meteoric rookie rise to superstardom. We flagged it as something he needed to improve in our Clips season preview.
Unfortunately for Clippers fans, despite continuing to work hard on his stroke, Blake’s suffered a sophomore slump at the line, falling back from a 64.2 percent success rate as a rook to just 55.4 percent through 41 games this year. He’s also attempting about one fewer free throw per 36 minutes than he did in 2011, according to Basketball-Reference, which might make you think that he’s starting to get a little gun-shy about his struggles and floating to the perimeter more.
You tend to see that when you’re watching Clippers games (few things are more frustrating than seeing Blake settle for jumpers) but, upon further inspection, Hoopdata’s shot location stats offer a mixed message there — Griffin is taking more shots from between 16 and 23 feet away this year, but he’s averaging more per-game attempts at the rim, too. It’s actually his paint-to-mid-range tries, between three and 15 feet out, that are becoming less frequent.
Now, this obviously isn’t killing Vinny Del Negro’s team — Griffin’s continued to put up 21 points and 11 rebounds per game while hitting 53 percent of his field-goal attempts, and the Clips are 24-17, tied for the fourth-best record in the Western Conference. Part of the reason the poor free-throw shooting doesn’t murder the Clips is that they aren’t an old-school, inside-out offensive team that relies on low-post work to generate scores through back-to-the-basket play and trips to the free-throw line.
Even in the half court, Paul’s mastery revolves around him keeping the dribble alive, probing until defensive sieves open up and then exploiting them, not just dumping the ball into Griffin on the block, cutting through to the opposite wing and letting him work one-on-one — the Clips run post-ups on just 8.5 percent of their offensive possessions, according to Synergy Sports Technology. If L.A.’s approach more closely mirrored that of, say, the Orlando Magic, who run everything off Dwight Howard down low and thus have to die by the sword when he struggles at the stripe, the flaw would be much more dire.
That said: The Clippers are the second-worst free-throw shooting team in the league, behind only Howard’s Magic. That failing not only can cost them games; it has cost them games. A Blake Griffin who goes one-for-two every time he’s fouled is a potential liability down the stretch of close games in the playoffs. More to the point, a Clippers front line where not a single player in the regular big-man rotation hits more than 55 percent of his freebies could lead to an awful lot of Paul, Williams and Caron Butler jumpers, an awful lot of slow, ugly postseason finishes, or maybe a little bit of both.
So when Blake airballs a pair, the immediate reaction for the rest of us is to laugh. For Clippers fans, though, the follow-up might just be a pang of doubt.
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