2. Teams mirror each other in free throw struggles
If Wednesday’s matchup between the Brooklyn Nets and Oklahoma City Thunder is as close as their last several meetings have been, the game could very well be decided at the free throw line, where the teams are basically mirror images of each other.
Both teams are in the top 10 in the NBA at getting to the line — Oklahoma City is third with 26.0 attempts per game, while Brooklyn is sixth at 25.6.
But neither team excels at maximizing those opportunities, as both teams are also in the bottom 10 in the league in free throw percentage. The Nets are 23rd at 74.5 percent, while the Thunder are 28th at a dreadful 71.4 percent clip.
Brooklyn has been particularly ghastly during its four-game winning streak, as the Nets are hitting just 62.8 percent of their 30.3 attempts per game over that stretch.
They were 14-for-19 (73.7 percent) and 14-for-22 (63.6 percent) in blowout wins over the Dallas Mavericks and Detroit Pistons, respectively, so the struggles didn’t matter as much.
But in narrow victories over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks, the Nets were awful. They made just 15-of-26 (57.7 percent) in the win over the Cavaliers on March 6 and hit only 33-of-54 (61.1 percent) in a two-point victory over the Hawks on Saturday.
The Nets made things hard on themselves in the fourth quarter against Cleveland by going just 5-of-9 at the line and were just 7-for-11 in the fourth period in Atlanta.
No one has suffered more at the free throw line for Oklahoma City than former NBA MVP Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook is making just 65 percent of his 6.5 attempts per game this season and hit only 73.7 percent a season ago. That is a huge drop for a guy who was an 82.3 percent foul shooter through his first nine NBA seasons.
The struggles trace back to a seemingly innocuous rule change by the NBA before the 2017-18 season that limited how far players could move between shots at the line. The new rule restricts players from going past the 3-point line after their first shot.
Westbrook’s routine — which he had since he was a child — was to shoot the first shot, retreat to near the midcourt stripe, collect himself, then turn around and head back for the second attempt.
Over the last two seasons combined, Westbrook has fallen off to just 70.2 percent from the line.
The change has affected his play as well.
During his MVP season in 2016-17, Westbrook averaged 10.4 free-throw attempts per game and shot 84.5 percent. His attempts dipped to 7.1 per game last season and the 6.5 per game this year marks Westbrook’s lowest rate since his injury-plagued 2013-14 season.
If the game is close late, the Nets might opt for a hack-a-Russ strategy, something that would have been unimaginable prior to the rule change.