There’s no way to talk about the Lakers poor free-throw shooting on Saturday night without pointing to one very obvious, very important and very costly set of shots. Down three points in the final seconds, LeBron James drew a foul on a 3-pointer, then promptly missed the first free throw.
James would make the second before intentionally missing the third as the Lakers were unsuccessful in their last-ditch attempt to tie or win the game. Ultimately, James going 1/3 in the decisive moment of the game was a perfect encapsulation of the Lakers free-throw shooting on the night and the season.
On Saturday, a game the Lakers lost by two points to Golden State, the Lakers shot 22/33 at the charity stripe. On the season, they’re shooting 72.2%, the second-worst percentage in the league. Time and again, it has cost the team on the season with Saturday simply being the most recent example.
“We’ve got to go in the gym and shoot more free throws,” Anthony Davis said. “That’s the only way to get out of it. And it starts with me. I’ve been terrible from the line, especially the last two (games)... It starts with me being better at the line. I take that personal when I miss free throws throughout the entire game, but especially in crunch time. We’ve just all got to be better, like I said, I started off tonight missing two early and it kind of just trickled down to the team.
“I think the only way is to take our time and knock ‘em down. Obviously when you miss a lot, or you miss some throughout the course of a game, it becomes mental more than anything... Like I said, it starts with me. I’ve been bad as of late and I’ve got to change that.”
Davis went 6/10 from the line against the Warriors. In the game prior he mentioned, he shot just 1/4. In fact, over his last four games, Davis is shooting 15/29 from the line as his struggles during that stretch and this season have mirrored that of the purple and gold.
Even when the Lakers won the title in the 2019-20 season, they ranked 28th in the league at 72.9% from the line. But the Lakers had a number of dependable shooters in that span, including Davis who led the team in attempts per game (8.5) and shooting percentage (84.6%) on the season.
Some critical departures in recent seasons have reliable shooters — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dennis Schröder — paired with the continued decrease in efficiency from Davis, who is shooting a career-worst 70.7% at the line this season, has left the Lakers without hardly any dependable shooters at the line.
Avery Bradley and Austin Reaves lead the team in free-throw shooting, but they have taken a combined 67 freebies on the year, 53 of those coming from the latter. Carmelo Anthony has been easily the most reliable on a big sample size, shooting 82.4% on 119 attempts this season.
But after Talen Horton-Tucker — shooting 80.8% on 78 attempts this season — no other Laker as been a particularly dependable option at the line. As frustrating as James’ miss was on Saturday and can be throughout the season, he’s actually shooting above his career average on the season at 74.6%.
The Lakers have had nine single-digit losses this season in which they shot 70% or worse at the free-throw line, including Saturday against the Warriors. Overall, it was the 24th time the team had shot 70% or below at the line in a game this season. Only the Rockets (30) have had more instances of shooting 70% or below at the line this year.
“Free-throw shooting keeps hurting us,” head coach Frank Vogel said. “We keep talking about it, keep putting the work in... If you want to reach the ultimate goal, you have to check all these boxes of little things that go into the differences in close games that could sway a playoff series. So I think it’s five games in a row now where we shot under 70%, and it’s just something that we’ve got to lock into. We’ve got to have that aspect of it if we’re going to turn the corner.”
For a team that has had so much go wrong for it outside of its control this season, allowing something like free throw shooting to continually impact games is equal parts frustrating and self-inflicted. In 2019-20, the Lakers were talented enough and cohesive enough to overcome poor free throw shooting, even if it lowered the margin for error.
This Lakers team is nowhere near as talented or cohesive but is still lowering that margin for error by continuing to struggle at the line. The end result is moments like Saturday where winnable games keep slipping out of their hands, whether in the final seconds or throughout the contest as the Lakers keep finding ways to frustrate fans and themselves this season.