Coaches don’t miss free throws

By: 06.12.09  •  33 Comments
Dwight Howard (photo. Mannion)

Dwight Howard (photo. Mannion)

Everybody has their opinion on how and why the Magic lost Game 4 and, ultimately, their shot at a championship. Take FOXSports’ Edgy And Controversial token Jason Whitlock, who echoes the most common reaction by putting the blame on Stan Van Gundy:

Van Gundy is responsible for one of the greatest choke jobs in NBA playoff history. If he had any pride, he’d resign today and let Patrick Ewing coach Game 5 on Sunday.

We all owe Shaq O’Neal an apology. Van Panic crashed Game 4, hand-delivering the Lakers a backbreaking overtime victory and a 3-1 series advantage.

No doubt, if Howard knocks down one of two free throws with 11 seconds to play, the Magic win the game. I’m sorry. I can live with Howard’s misses. He’s a 59 percent free throw shooter. There’s no reason to expect him to make free throws at crunch time.

This game turned on one decision.

Jameer Nelson had no business on the court. None.

I agree that Rafer Alston, especially coming off his stellar Game 3, should have played more (he clocked 27 minutes, while Jameer had 25), but at the same time, I can’t just let Dwight slide for those free throws. That’s where Edgy And Controversial Jason Whitlock is wrong: There is ABSOLUTELY a reason to expect Dwight to make two free throws — or just one — in a clutch situation.

NBA big men are traditionally below-average free throw shooters, and while you can chalk that up to hand size, range of motion in the shoulders or whatever, I think it’s really just because nobody expects them to be that good. From the time they’re in high school, they don’t practice free throws as much as a guard would practice. If you’re getting tough buckets in the paint, winning your team extra possessions by battling for rebounds, and blocking a couple shots on top of that, it may seem like a lot to ask to also turn into Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf from 15 feet away. But because every big man can point to Wilt Chamberlain and say, “He only shot 51 percent from the line,” it’s acceptable to perform at a lower standard than other players.

And here’s the problem, particularly for somebody like Dwight: He takes A LOT of free throws. Because of his size and skill, teams have to foul him close to the basket. Throughout this series it’s been clear the Lakers made it their game plan to not let Dwight get those soul-crushing dunks on them, especially in Orlando, where he can whip the crowd into a frenzy. Kobe and everyone else in purple would rather bear-hug Dwight and tackle him before letting him get a dunk. And a lot of teams would do the same. During the regular season, Dwight led the League with 10.8 free throws per game (59% FT). In the playoffs, he’s been taking 10.2 free throws per, second behind LeBron James (14.2 FT per game). And, true, up until last night, he’s been pretty good in the Finals from the stripe.

But Howard, and every coach that he’s ever played for and will ever play for, knows damn well he’s gonna be put on the line often. He’s going to have to hit some free throws in crunch time. So why should he be held to a lower level of expectation than the Nick Andersons, Darius Washingtons and Derrick Roses of the game? If any perimeter player bricked those FT’s in Game 4 — and Lord help us all if it were LeBron or Kobe — nobody could “live with” those misses.

I’m not saying Dwight lost the series for Orlando. Obviously they wouldn’t even be in the Finals and wouldn’t have been in position to win Game 4 without his contributions. Bottom line, though, his free throws cost the team. And he knows that. And I doubt Dwight is giving himself a free pass.

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