I used to do some radio play-by-play and color commentary in college, and ever since then I've often found myself wondering if the pros who do it for big-league sports really listen to what they're saying. What I mean by that is I think they don't listen to what they're saying. I can understand that because I never listened to what I was saying.
During Game 1 of the Lakers-Spurs series Sunday, ABC's Al Michaels and Doc Rivers spent a lot of time in the first half talking about how the two teams, who between them have won the last five NBA titles and are among the favorites to win this year, were the two worst free-throw shooting teams in the league during the regular season. Again and again the subject came up, no fewer than eight times. These teams can't shoot from the line, but they're still really good teams.
At one point, Michaels and Rivers went so far as to debunk -- no, slam-dunk -- the idea that foul shooting is all-important, something most announcers blather on about endlessly.
"You can make too much of free-throw shooting," Michaels said shortly after narrating a graphic showing that Shaquille O'Neal's 29.5 percent foul shooting in the just-completed six-game win over the Rockets was the worst ever in a single series, just ahead of two Wilt Chamberlain brickfests in the late '60s, also in winning efforts. "Again, I go back to the fact, these are the two worst free-throw shooting teams in the league. But in a lot of power polls, they'd be 1-2-3-4, somewhere in that category, along with maybe Minnesota and Indiana right now."
"That's because these two teams have the best talent in the league also," Rivers said, "and talent at the end of the day will override the poor free-throw shooting."
Got that? Good, because I did a quick little study after the game, which I'll tell you about in a second here, and it told me that Rivers was exactly right.
So early in the third quarter the Spurs are nursing a mere six-point lead even though the Lakers had played horrendously in the first half, shooting 28 percent and getting almost nothing out of Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Tony Parker misses the first of two free throws and Michaels says, "This is the only reason the Lakers are even this close: They [the Spurs] are now 1-of-10 from the free-throw line."
"Yeah," Rivers says as Parker sinks the second for a seven-point lead, "that's the story right now in this half. The first half, you look at the Lakers, they made 12 free throws and the Spurs made one. That's the difference."
Wait a minute. Weren't these guys listening when they spent most of the second quarter saying that bad foul shooting doesn't necessarily hurt a team? Michaels and Rivers, who are both smart guys who should listen to themselves, didn't mention this but they could have: Just a month ago the NCAA championship was won by Connecticut, an appalling bunch when it comes to foul shooting -- 312th out of 326 Division I teams -- and foul shooting's even less important in the pros than it is in the college game.
"The story," I said out loud to my TV, which hears my voice more often than my wife does, and yes I'm working on that, "is that the Lakers are playing abominably and they're only down by seven. If the Spurs had made a normal, league-average number of their free-throw attempts, the Lakers would be down by maybe 13 instead of seven, which a minute into the third quarter is just about the same thing. The point is they're in this game, and they haven't even gotten off the bus yet."
The Lakers then went on a 21-8 run over the next six minutes for a 56-50 lead. And guess what: They started that run by Shaq hitting a shot, getting fouled and clanking the free throw. During the run, the Lakers hit three of four free throws, the Spurs one of two.
See? Three out of four. I told you foul shooting is important.
Oh, wait, sorry. I wasn't listening. Did I say it's important or not important?
Anyway, the Spurs trailed by three after three periods, then blew the Lakers out in the fourth. The story? The Lakers played even more heinously in the fourth quarter than they had in the first two, and the Spurs played their best period of the game. Foul shots had nothing to do with it -- just as Rivers said they don't when he wasn't saying they do. But for the record, while the Spurs were outscoring the Lakers 26-13 in the quarter, San Antonio hit four of six from the line, Los Angeles five of seven. I think you can see the importance there. Six consecutive turnovers by the Lakers at one point, and 11 for the quarter, had a little more effect, don't you think?
The last time an NBA champion finished in the top 20 in free-throw percentage -- that is, not among the very worst foul shooters in the league -- was in 1998, when the Bulls won their last championship while tying for 14th in foul shooting out of 29 teams. I think you'll agree with me that the key to the Bulls' championships wasn't foul shooting. The last time a really good foul-shooting team won the championship -- we'll define really good as better than 10th in the league -- was in 1988, when the Lakers were tied for fourth out of 23 teams. I think you'll agree with me that the key to the Showtime Lakers wasn't foul shooting.
And here's one to wow them with down at your local: The last time the best foul-shooting team in the league won the championship, it was also the Lakers. The Minneapolis Lakers! They were the best of the nine teams in the NBA that year, 1954, beating out the Rochester Royals, Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and Milwaukee Hawks for the Western Division title. We're talking about pre-modern basketball here, the hoops equivalent to 1890s baseball or single-wing football. The 24-second clock hadn't been introduced yet.
The best foul-shooting team this year? The eliminated Dallas Mavericks.
In the 50 years since the best foul-shooting team in the league won the title, the worst foul-shooting team in the league has won it four times, including two and three years ago.
So let's stop talking about free-throw shooting, because it doesn't matter all that much, and anyway nobody's listening, including the guys doing the talking.
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