As we look through reasons why OKC is starting to win, one thing comes to my mind first.
Free throw shooting.
In OKC’s wins, the Thunder’s shooting 79.5 percent. In losses, they’re shooting 76.1 percent. So that’s not that big of a difference. But look at the difference in attempts. In wins, OKC gets to the line 29.8 times while in losses, just 24.0. Add in the fact that in wins the Thunder’s hitting a higher clip and that’s five or six points right there. And when you’re leading the league in losses by six or less, every point matters.
In this stretch where OKC is playing it’s best ball of the year, free throw shooting has been even better. The Thunder’s hitting 83 percent of its shots at the line since Dec. 31. But that run at the beginning of December up until the win against Golden State, OKC lost 12 of 13 by an average of seven points with six games by six or fewer points. During those 13 games, the Thunder shot just 72 percent from the free throw line, with many games under 70 percent. Again, since Dec. 31st’s win over Golden State where OKC has gone 7-6, the Thunder’s hitting 83 percent from the line and making an average of 24 free throws a game, compared to just 16 during the stretch where they lost all those close games. It doesn’t take Isaac Newton to figure out that’s eight points and when you lose six games by six or fewer, those eight points could have meant victory.
For more perspective, during the 14-game losing streak earlier in the year, the Thunder hit 76.9 percent from the line. They made 19 free throws a game (remember 24 a game now). That’s a difference of… um, five free shots. Oklahoma City lost three games by five or fewer points during the 14-game losing streak. In other words, free throws are big. It seems like a lot of times players walk to the line to shoot two and really don’t put much thought into it make or miss. No matter what they do their little routine, shoot and then slap hands with their teammates. Some don’t seem to value the opportunity to put points on the board with a wide open 15-foot shot. But lately, OKC’s taking advantage of it. (Random note: My dad used to always want a rule change for college basketball to count a miss on the front end of a 1-and-1 to count as TWO misses. I always liked that idea.)
In the NBA, games get decided by six or less a lot. And in the Thunder’s case, a whole lot. The difference between hitting 16-24 or 21-14 from the line can often times mean the difference between a win or a loss.