If you want to beat the Los Angeles Lakers, you better get to the free throw line

PHOENIX - MAY 23: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks with referee Eddie Rush in the second quarter of Game Three of the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at US Airways Center on May 23, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Lakers have completed 13 contests in the 2010 postseason, with a fine record of 10-3.  They are undefeated at home and sport an even record of 3-3 on the road.  Those three losses happened in vastly different ways.  The Oklahoma City Thunder out-lasted the Lakers in a defensive struggle to take Game 3 of the 1st round many weeks ago, before tearing the Lakers apart limb by limb in Game 4.  Then, the Lakers rattled off 8 wins in succession (including 3 road wins) before that win streak finally came to a halt last night in Phoenix, where the Lakers couldn't keep up with a strong offensive performance from Los Suns.  Beaten with offense, beaten with defense, beaten with a stick; 3 losses, 3 very different formulas for how those defeats were delivered.  Except for one glaring similiarity.

Huge free throw disparity.

I know damn well the can of worms being opened up with this kind of conversation, so obligatory disclaimers must be applied. I'm not criticizing officiating, blaming refs for Lakers losses, or buying into any conspiracy theories.  What follows does not completely and obviously display favoritism or anti-favoritism towards any team or players.  The interpretation you take from this piece is your own.

All that said, there's some fairly anomalous stuff going on in the world of the Purple and Gold, anomalies that can not and should not be overlooked when attempting to analyze what is going right and wrong for the team.  In all three Lakers losses (and a fair share of the wins too), the Lakers have been on the wrong end of some gnarly free throw discrepencies.  On average, our team has shot 20.7 less free throws than our opponents in the 3 losses.  20 FTs ... that's tough for any team to overcome.  For example (and I apologize in advance for this getting all "stats-y"), in last night's game, the Suns scored an average of 1.03 points per possession on possessions which did not result in free throws, and an average of 1.76 PPP for possessions that did end at the charity stripe.  Over the course of the 10 additional free throw possessions (a little bit less than 1 possession per 2 free throws), it stands to reason that the Suns got an addtional 7-8 points at the line than they would have if there were no free throw edge.  Not quite enough to make up the final deficit of 9 points, but certainly enough that the game would have gone down to the theoretical wire.

Here's looking at it another way.  The Lakers have not been outscored from the field in ANY game this postseason.  Even the beatdown Oklahoma City delivered (in which the Lakers lost by 21), the Thunder outscored L.A. by 25 at the stripe, because the Lakers did themselves no favors by shooting only 60% from the FT line in that game.  The closest any team has come to matching what the Lakers produced from the run of play was a game in which the Utah Jazz tied L.A. from the field, but lost by 8 at the free throw line.  Of course, this is an extremely unfair way to look at things, because, as shown above, free throw possessions don't just disppear if a foul is not awarded.  If the proper extrapolations are done, the Lakers would still have lost one OKC game, and the other two losses would be very close, so "blaming" any of these losses on free throws is folly.  But free throws do matter, and that's not even getting into the effect foul trouble has on both a player's playing time, and his aggressiveness, which is a topic subjective enough that it shouldn't be touched by this attempt at fair and level-headed officiating analysis.

And it's not just the losses.  The Lakers have been on the short end of the FT totals in almost every road game they've played, significantly so.  They've only enjoyed a FT edge in one out of 6 road games, and that game was game 4 against the Utah Jazz when, let's face it, the Jazz were staring a sweep dead in the eyes, and they blinked.  In every other road game, the Lakers' opponents have shot more FTs than L.A, and it's been by double digit margins every time.  The Lakers have won on the road despite shooting 17 less FTs (in OKC game 6) and 12 less FTs (in Utah game 3). 

None of this is all that strange, right?  Everyone knows that the home team gets calls.  Whether you are trying to justify it with statements about the home team being more aggressive, or villify it with talk of conspiracies and official ineptitude, or even rationalize it with "refs are only human, and they don't want to piss off 18K angry home fans", this phenomenon should not be new to anybody at all.  I'm sure we'd see something similar if we looked at the rest of the playoffs, right?

Yeah, sort of.  It's true that every team remaining in the playoffs has had a free throw advantage at home, and all the teams except Orlando are negative (who's numbers are pumped up because Hack-a-Howard is a viable defensive strategy) on FTs on the road.  But the difference between home and away Laker games is so much higher that it can't help but stand out as a red flag.  Check the table below. 

  Home Away Difference
ORL 6.7 1.2 5.5
BOS 3.5 -4.6 8.1
PHX 3.2 -2.9 6.1
LAL 2.3 -14 16.3

Orlando sees a difference of 5.5 FTs in home vs. road contests.  Phoenix is similar, at about 6.1.  Boston, they of the extremely physical defense, have a change in FT advantage of 8.1.  The difference in FT advantage/disadvantage for the Lakers?  16.3, more than twice that of anybody still left in these playoffs.  It should also be noted, as you can see above, that the Lakers aren't exactly getting the same returns on FTs at home as anybody else is either.  Both home and away, the Lakers are seeing the worst FT discrepencies of anybody still dancing.

What does it all mean?  That is where the stats end and the assumptions begin, assumptions which are inherently flawed and biased based upon one's rooting interests.  There is nothing about a free throw discrepency that is unfair at the basic level.  It's quite possible for a game with an even FT count to be an officiating travesty.  It's just as possible that a game in which one team shoots 20 or more FTs more than their opponent was a well-called game.  Hell, if a team really goes out of their way to defend by fouling, a 20 FT advantage can still qualify as a screw job to the team getting all that extra charity.  No matter the situation, you can not, with both 100% certainty and and validity, proclaim that (Fill in the blank) team got screwed in that game.

There are only two assumptions I feel comfortable making, based off these numbers; two assumptions that I can put into print without my inner Devil's Advocate screaming "Homer" in my ear.  The first is that, in order to beat the Lakers, a team has to be very aggressive in attacking the basket.  The sheer number of free throws given to Lakers' opponents on the road indicates that the aggression will likely be rewarded.

The 2nd assumption?  With a difference of 16 FTs shot vs. given up in home vs. away contests for the Lakers, I think we can safely say that games involving Los Angeles are being officiated in different ways based upon the location.  That discrepency is too big to be ignored or discounted.  It's highly doubtful that the Lakers get foul happy on the road, but play a clean game at home.  So, we're left with two possibilities. Either the Lakers are foul happy all the time, but they get away with it at home, or opposing teams are getting the benefit of the doubt when a bunch of screaming fans think that they should.  I'm sure everyone will have their opinions on which one is the "truf", but we should all agree on one thing.

Somebody's getting screwed.

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