BILLY DONOVAN IS confused by the query. His Oklahoma Metropolis Thunder have ranked close to the underside of the league in a single statistical class all season lengthy, and he has no concept what to make of it.

It is late November and Donovan is standing within the Thunder’s apply facility, taking part in the hits prematurely of a sport the following day: changes, getting again in transition, pick-and-roll coverages.

However this query is completely different. This one does not appear to have a solution.

Puzzled, Donovan shakes his head, leans in somewhat nearer and hunts for clarification.

“Opposing free throw proportion?” he says. “I am not fairly positive I do know what which means …”

Consider it or not, it’s a actual stat — merely how nicely opposing groups shoot free throws in opposition to you — and the Thunder do certainly stink at it; foes hit 79.7% in opposition to them, 27th within the league. The NBA common is round 76%, and contemplating OKC is shedding video games by zero.four factors on common, all the things issues.

These are the sorts of issues that hang-out coaches. NBA video games are determined within the margins, and discovering unfastened change below the statistical cushion is a bonus.

That is why, regardless of the confusion, Donovan’s curiosity is piqued.

“So groups are capturing 80% in opposition to us? I imply, it is actually arduous for us, when groups are capturing that form of proportion,” he says, nonetheless looking for an affordable reply.

“If I make JJ Redick miss a free throw? S—. That may be a good night time for us as a result of JJ do not miss.”

Nets heart DeAndre Jordan

Perhaps by pure teaching intuition, Donovan has unwittingly tried strategies to enhance the Thunder’s free throw protection. He’s a proponent of icing the shooter, however he likes to do it proper in the course of the sport. If he’s going to make use of a timeout, he’ll simply take it between free throws.

Nonetheless, small pattern measurement however, shooters are 9-of-11 (81.9%) this season on free throw makes an attempt in opposition to OKC after Donovan takes a timeout.

“I strive to try this to interrupt some rhythm, nevertheless it hasn’t gone too nicely in the event that they’re capturing 80 p.c,” Donovan says.

The Philadelphia 76ers are first within the league in opponent free throw proportion, permitting simply 73%.

So what offers?

“That is an excellent query. Have not actually considered that one earlier than,” Donovan says, even soliciting a number of guesses from different assembled media. “I actually do not know what would trigger that.”

There’s extra: Below Scott Brooks, the Thunder (jokingly) appointed director of basketball communications Matt Tumbleson because the staff’s “defensive free throw coach.” And in 2013-14, the Thunder had been first within the league, permitting 72.7% to opponents on the stripe. However below Donovan, and with out the seemingly professional oversight of Tumbleson, the Thunder have regressed.

All of which sounds fully absurd, proper?

Effectively, it’s, nevertheless it raises a elementary query: Are you able to guard the unguardable? Are you able to defend the indefensible?

“There are a variety of issues that we deal with that we, you understand, even have management over,” Donovan says. “That is one I want I did, however I haven’t got any management over that.”

Or possibly he does.

As Donovan’s media session wraps up, he cracks a smile and says, “Effectively, now I will go look into this.”

IT’S GAME 2 of the opening spherical of the 2019 Western Convention playoffs, and Golden State Warriors ahead Kevin Durant is on the free throw line to shoot two with 5:26 left within the fourth quarter. The Warriors are main the LA Clippers by three factors.

Durant, a profession 88.three% free throw shooter, goes into his trademark routine: Spin the ball, one dribble, spin it once more, one other dribble, bend the knees and shimmy the shoulders.

To his proper, Patrick Beverley stands nonetheless — or not less than he does till Durant prepares to launch the ball. That is when Beverley lurches ahead like he’s attempting to not fall off an imaginary cliff, appearing like he’s about to lose his stability and fall on his face.

Durant misses.

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zero:20

Patrick Beverley messes with Kevin Durant on the foul line throughout Sport 2 of the Clippers’ first-round sequence with the Warriors.

With yet one more to shoot, Durant leans in to high-five teammates Draymond Inexperienced and Klay Thompson. However as he does, Beverley crosses over the paint, lingering for an additional beat proper in the course of his gathering opponents.

Durant appears on the referee, in search of some form of acknowledgement, shakes his head and rolls his eyes. Subsequent try — spin it, dribble, spin once more, bend, shimmy — and Beverley, now to Durant’s left, teeters on the sting of the cliff as soon as extra.

Durant makes this one, jogging again on protection along with his fingers raised, sporting a “C’mon man” smirk.

Here is a indisputable fact that’s positive to disappoint each loudmouth behind a basket within the NBA: All that stuff followers do — clanging issues collectively, yelling, waving arms, shaking bellies — does not really appear to work. Final season, gamers shot 76.7% on free throws at house versus 76.6% on the highway.

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However to check the key underworld of free throw protection is to uncover that there are in actual fact methods for gamers to power a free throw miss. It takes cleverness and creativity, nevertheless it really is feasible. The strategies are restricted solely by your creativeness.

That, and the rulebook. Technically, Beverley’s methodology is unlawful.

There is a identify for these kinds of free throw shenanigans: disconcertion. Rule No. 9, Part I, Level F states:

Throughout all free throw makes an attempt, no opponent within the sport shall disconcert the shooter as soon as the ball is positioned at his disposal. The next are acts of disconcertion:

Elevating his arms when positioned on the lane line on a free throw which won’t stay in play,

Waving his arms or making a sudden motion when within the visible subject of the shooter throughout any free throw try,

Speaking to the free throw shooter or speaking in a loud, disruptive method throughout any free throw,

Getting into the lane and persevering with to maneuver throughout any free throw.

However unlawful or not, the darkish artwork of free throw protection has its personal military of practitioners.

Ryan Hollins shouldn’t be one among them. On the NBA web site, the place the rulebook is accompanied by movies illustrating numerous infractions, the instance for “acts of disconcertion” is of former journeyman guard Jordan Farmar taking a free throw whereas Hollins walks prematurely into the lane with a sudden jolt.

Farmar instantly objects and wins his attraction, getting a recent free throw.

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Hollins’ mistake? He was too apparent. There is a talent to correctly irritating a free throw shooter. It isn’t in opposition to the principles until you get caught.

Russell Westbrook, one of many savviest free throw defenders within the league, has a extra nuanced go-to transfer. It is just like Beverley’s cliffhanger however extra refined. Proper because the shooter raises the ball over his head, Westbrook will go from bent over with fingers on his knees, to popping straight up.

“I don’t know what you are speaking about,” Westbrook mentioned when requested about it, with one half wink-wink and one other half don’t-you-dare-ask-another-question-about-this.

You noticed it simply two weeks in the past, when the Houston Rockets visited the New Orleans Pelicans. With 1:58 remaining within the second quarter, Pelicans ahead Josh Hart was fouled when Westbrook went for an open-court steal. Simply as Hart was about to fireplace his first freebie, there was Westbrook, popping up, executing his transfer to perfection. Hart missed and shot Westbrook a glare.

And it is not as if referees do not discover too.

“You do not name the violation the primary time it ever occurs until it was tremendous [obvious],” mentioned former referee Monty McCutchen, now the NBA’s vice chairman of referee growth and coaching.

“You tackle it. You run the sport. You say, ‘You are going to put me in a field right here to name one thing, and that is gonna be embarrassing for you,'” McCutchen defined.

“It’s a must to make a judgment. If I clearly see him hitch his free throw proper as you barked out, that is disconcertion. I am giving him one other free throw.”

The variations on this transfer are many: There’s crossing the lane on the final second to attempt to disrupt a routine. There’s yelling out instructions about boxing out or about what man you have got proper because the shot is being launched. There are coordinated tips, like an assistant coach hollering out directions and the participant shortly turning round to “hear” because the shot goes up. There’s bending over to tie a shoe.

“Guys may step in entrance of you earlier than an enormous couple free throws late within the sport and attempt to throw you off your rhythm,” mentioned Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a profession 86.four% free throw shooter.

“Most gamers have a routine, and relatively than let the participant hassle you, you simply begin over along with your routine. Virtually like a golfer backing off a putt.”

BROOKLYN NETS BIG MAN DeAndre Jordan skilled a free throw renaissance final season, nearly completely due to a reworked routine. It is odd, nevertheless it works.

The mechanics are the identical. The excessive follow-through is equivalent. It begins with Jordan chasing down the ball, touching it instantly after the foul, earlier than he takes his spot on the line. He then appears at a teammate and asks, “Who do you bought?” Two dribbles and pull.

Jordan went from a profession 45% free throw shooter to hitting 70.5% final season. And shortly sufficient, opposing gamers caught on.

In a sport final October, Atlanta Hawks veteran Vince Carter walked by and tried to slap the ball away from Jordan as he palmed it subsequent to a referee to start the ritual. Then-Clipper Mike Scott did the identical a number of weeks later, leaping to intercept as Jordan went for the primary contact.

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The Pelicans took it to the intense final December, taking part in a mini model of keep-away to mess with Jordan. If you happen to can mess with routine, you’ll be able to mess with outcomes.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Rajon Rondo, for his half, is a grasp of each nuisance and nuance, all the time in search of shrewd methods to realize a bonus. Final season, throughout a January sport in opposition to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Rondo took issues a bit too far.

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zero:29

On Jan. 24, Rajon Rondo acquired a technical foul for throwing a towel whereas Taj Gibson was capturing free throws.

Rondo, standing two ft from the sideline close to his staff’s bench, chucked a towel again to a coach squatting like a baseball catcher as free throw shooter Taj Gibson was mid-shot.

Gibson swished the free throw anyway, and Rondo was hit with a technical foul.

“S— price me some cash,” Rondo mentioned. “[But] I will do something to win.”

Rondo’s signature troll is interrupting the NBA high-five celebration that kinds within the lane between the primary and second free throws. He’ll invite himself and intercept high-fives, even going as far as to dam them altogether. You understand, customary routine-disruption stuff.

However two seasons in the past throughout a playoff sport in opposition to the Warriors whereas he was with the Pelicans, Rondo painted the Sistine Chapel of free throw distraction, shortly wiping his sweaty face on the ball proper earlier than Draymond Inexperienced toed the road. The refs by no means seen.

“Any means I could make anyone miss a free throw, particularly in a vital second, I am all for it,” Rondo mentioned. “I imply, it really works. If I do not do a rattling factor, generally they could miss anyway. It simply relies upon. I feel psychologically, generally it really works.”

The charity stripe is basketball psychological warfare. Most gamers disagree with the decision that put their opponent on the foul line to start with, so why not proper the fallacious and restore stability to the sport your self? The ball should not inform lies.

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Derrick Favors misses a free throw as Lucas Nogueira drops and adjusts his shorts.

Some methods are barely harder to disregard, equivalent to:

Lucas Nogueira dropping his shorts to his knees as Derrick Favors stood on the line in 2017. (Favors missed.) Kobe Bryant deploying the cliffhanger on Kyle Korver (87.7% profession free throw shooter) in 2013 with 15 seconds left in a one-point sport. (Korver missed.) LeBron James touching Gilbert Arenas on the shoulder within the 2006 playoffs and saying one thing to him in a one-point sport. (Arenas missed.)

Free throws are presupposed to be free. However gamers preserve discovering new methods to make their opponents pay.

IT’S NOT ALL dropped drawers, tossed towels and pretend cliffs, although. Essentially the most common method to free throw protection is widespread trash speak — that’s, easy thoughts video games.

Maybe essentially the most notorious instance: Sunday, June 1, 1997, Sport 1 of the NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz. There are 9.2 seconds left, the sport is tied 82-82. After Dennis Rodman fouls him on a unfastened ball, Karl Malone stands on the line. Scottie Pippen casually walks by Malone, quietly chirping into the 1997 MVP’s ear with a number of the most epic trash speak in NBA historical past.

The Mailman does not ship on Sunday.

With the United Heart roaring, Malone goes by way of his routine, a number of dribbles, two eye-level spins of the ball, a bend of the knees with somewhat bounce. He lifts the ball excessive with a slight hitch, his comically large white wristbands engulfing the ball, and holds the follow-through.

Misses the primary.

Misses the second.

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1:44

‘The mailman does not ship on Sunday’

Seven seconds later, Michael Jordan hits a buzzer-beating, pull-up jumper over Bryon Russell to take Sport 1.

Trash speak labored then. And greater than 20 years later, it really works all the identical right now.

JJ Redick, an 89% profession free thrower, mentioned that passing feedback equivalent to, “I do know you are gonna give me one right here” are fairly customary. He mentioned he usually has seen somebody from the bench yelling proper as he shoots.

“You possibly can rely on it once we play the Raptors, [Toronto assistant coach] Jamaal Magloire is gonna get up and yell when you’re capturing free throws. It is simply gonna occur,” Redick mentioned. “I do the identical s—.”

Redick mentioned that when he performed with Hedo Turkoglu, the Turkish ahead would yell, “Oh, that is off!” proper as somebody was capturing. However Turkoglu mentioned it with a thick accent in a deep, baritone voice.

“So it comes off, ‘Ohhh, dats ufff!'” Redick mentioned, doing an admirably dedicated impression of Turkoglu. Today, as an inside joke to solely himself, Redick will make use of, “Ohhh, dats ufff!” in his finest Turkoglu voice on different shooters.

“I nonetheless try this,” Redick mentioned, laughing to himself. “It generally works. All somewhat little bit of gamesmanship.”

Nonetheless, Redick concedes there’s a technique — or extra particularly, one particular person — that may make him miss.

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“The one particular person that might actually mess me up is DeAndre [Jordan],” Redick mentioned. “He’d be the one man. He would say some off-the-wall s— that may simply make me giggle.”

Jordan supplied his clarification.

“That’s as a result of we had been teammates for thus lengthy, I acquired some inside jokes,” he mentioned. “If I could make anyone take into consideration me on the free throw line they usually miss a shot or inform the ref that I’m doing one thing, that may be a level for us.

“If I make JJ Redick miss a free throw? S—. That may be a good night time for us as a result of JJ do not miss.”

Different troll masters have interaction in Jedi thoughts tips, flipping the thought course of, reversing the psychology.

“You may inform ’em you understand they’re gonna make it,” mentioned Thunder guard Chris Paul. “If he misses it, after all you are gonna say that is why he missed it. It is all the time a sport inside a sport.”

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It is simple to overlook the subtleties of the free throw battle. Free throws are, by all appearances, boring. That is the irony on this. The motion halts. Everybody stands round and watches. A quick-paced, extremely intense sport hits the brakes.

Followers cannot hear the conversations on the courtroom between gamers. They cannot hear the debates with refs. They cannot hear changes being relayed from the bench. However for these on the ground, it is one of the crucial private occasions of a sport.

“It is the actual group half, the watering gap, if you’ll, of an NBA sport,” McCutchen mentioned.

Referees monitor the trash speak to ensure it stays on the acceptable temperature. They do their analysis. They learn up on Twitter beefs, they know if two guys grew up collectively, they’re conscious of previous historical past. All of it goes into how they method conditions like free throw line trash speak.

“Gamesmanship is one thing that we would like,” McCutchen mentioned, “[but] at a wholesome degree.”

Seth Curry’s thoughts trick within the West finals resulted in a miss for among the best free throw shooters in NBA historical past: his brother Steph. Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports activities

FREE THROWS ARE as a lot a psychological problem as they’re bodily — possibly much more. The tales of a nasty free throw shooter making 30 in a row in apply are countless. Steven Adams, a 38.7% free throw shooter this season for the Thunder, routinely makes 9 of 10 throughout free throw capturing video games after practices.

However on the core of a high quality free throw shooter is nerve — the power to dam out the noise. One of the best free throwers are these steadfast on the stripe.

“For positive,” mentioned Warriors guard Stephen Curry, when requested if he notices the techniques. “And I adore it as a result of they really assume it really works. But it surely does not.”

Curry — a 90.5% free throw shooter, among the best of all time — has a easy routine, extremely repeatable. He is a superb shooter and almost inconceivable to rattle. Besides, he mentioned, for one time.

“My brother acquired me final yr,” Curry mentioned, shaking his head in disgust.

Curry was within the midst of a postseason fourth-quarter streak. A ridiculous one at that. Relationship again to 2015, he had made 81 consecutive fourth quarter and/or time beyond regulation free throws in playoff video games. And so it was that his brother, Seth Curry, oh-so-casually talked about it to him in Sport 1 of the Western Convention finals.

“I simply laughed it off,” Steph mentioned, “as a result of I knew about it beforehand. However the truth he talked about it simply added somewhat one thing additional to it.”

Steph made each fourth-quarter free throws in Sport 1 and winked again at Seth. Not right now, buddy.

“After which Sport four, I missed one — and my quick response was to take a look at him,” Steph mentioned. “You may care much less if it was the Western Convention Finals, closeout sport to go to the Finals, no matter it was, I instantly checked out him and was like, ‘Oh, you bought me.’ That is the one time I can consider somebody messing with me and it labored.”

“That is really good,” Redick mentioned of Seth Curry’s jinx. “That is a great way to do it. Put one thing out within the universe and it is gonna come again.”

With the rise of analytics, the free throw is effective foreign money. It is without doubt one of the most effective performs within the sport: Two-shot journeys to the road yield an anticipated 1.52 factors, based on ESPN Analytics, higher than each shot sort apart from dunks.

The free throw is a wide-open shot, unguarded, with time to set, breathe and undergo a whole routine. And here is the factor: You possibly can’t defend it.

Or possibly you really can.