Earlier today, I talked about how a big part of this series will be Indiana’s ability to move back to its normal style. The Hawks had them changing things up to react to 3-point shooters, while the Wizards will play more straight up. Frank Vogel must be happy about that.
One other welcome change for the Pacers should be an advantage at the free-throw line.
Overall in round one, Indiana took just 22.7 free-throws per game compared to 24.9 per for Atlanta. The difference proved large in each of the Pacers’ losses: In all three, they took fewer free throw attempts than the Hawks. Yet, in three of their four wins, the Pacers had the free-throw-attempt advantage.
Game 4 was the only contest in which free throws didn’t seem to be a major factor, as Indiana won despite losing the FTA battle. (Indiana shot 14 to Atlanta’s 17). Then again, despite few attempts for both teams, it may have been because Indiana shot so poorly from the line (going a putrid 8-for-14) that it took a Herculean defensive effort to pull out even a 3-point win. (The Pacers held Atlanta to 91.3 points per 100 possessions in what was their best performance of the series.)
While fans love to talk about refs, the real reason teams, on a season-long basis, do or do not get to the line comes down to skill. Some teams have players who can earn free throws; some don’t.
Of course, in a short playoff series, whistle bias can come into play, and even a single game being called poorly can swing a team’s fate. Paul Millsap definitely seemed to get the benefit of the doubt more than Hoosiers would have liked, for example, and that could certainly happen against Washington as well.
Still, Indiana should expect to outscore the Wizards from the line.
In the regular season, only four teams got to the line less often than Washington and only five shot a worse percentage from the stripe. Worse still, in the first round, no team shot worse from the line than the Wizards’ awful 70.3%. Indiana, by contrast, was the 8th-best shooting team in the NBA during the regular season (77.9%) and was league-average at getting there (13th best).
Individually, the Pacers don’t have many players you can expect to get to the line often other than Paul George. He came through huge in both Games 6 and 7, marching to the line 10 and 8 times, respectively, and making 16 of those 18 freebies. For the Wizards, Wall is the main free-throw earner, and he did a tremendous job of doing so against the Bulls, getting to the line for double-digit attempts in three of five games.
How often these guys and their teammates get to the will loom large.
Especially in Games 1 and 2, Indiana should get the benefit of some friendly whistles as the fans carry momentum to the home team. So the Pacers need to defend without fouling on one end and not settle for jumpers, instead driving into the teeth of the Wizards’ defense, on the other.
We’ll all look to the athletic exploits of Paul George and John Wall, and the bruising interior presences of David West and Nene. But the easiest shot in the game — the free throw — could be have an outsized impact on this series.