Free throws, clutch time key in tight series

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The Heat and Thunder have a rest day today, but a critical Game 4 looms on Tuesday.The Miami Heat may have a 2-1 advantage and the series momentum in the NBA Finals after taking Games 2 and 3, but the teams have nearly played to a draw over the three-game span.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have actually outscored the Heat by a single point after a combined 144 minutes of action.

What's been the difference for the Heat that's allowed them to lead in this tight series?


The Miami Heat have enjoyed a huge advantage at the free throw line, shooting 85 percent compared to 70 percent for the Thunder, and overall have an 13-point edge in points from made free throws.

Actual vs Expected FTM By Game
2012 NBA Finals

The advantage for the Heat is most surprising when you take into account the expected free throws that each team should have made using season percentages.

Based on the number of times each player has gotten to the line this series and their rate of making free throws entering the Finals, the Heat have collected eight more points than they were expected to, while the Thunder have collected seven fewer points than expected.

That’s a 15-point swing that literally is the difference between the Heat being up 2-1 rather than down 0-3, if you consider the timing of the attempts in each game. (In Game 1, an 11 point win by the Thunder, free throws were not the determining factor in the outcome.)

In Game 2, when the Heat shot an incredible 88 percent and the Thunder missed seven free throws, the Heat’s four-point victory would have turned into a one point Thunder win if the Heat and Thunder would have made free throws at their usual rates.

And in Game 3, when the Heat shot a blistering 89 percent while the Thunder missed nine free throws, the Heat’s six-point win would have actually been a two-point Thunder victory based on the expected free throws each team should have made.


Entering the Finals, Kevin Durant was one of the most clutch players this postseason, shooting 60 percent in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime when the score is within five points (“clutch time”), the second-highest field goal percentage behind Paul Pierce.

Kevin Durant vs LeBron James
Clutch Time This Series

However, Durant hasn't been as clutch during the Finals, missing five of six shots from the field in “clutch time”.

LeBron James, in a small sample, has quietly turned in to Mr. Clutch. Entering the Finals, James was shooting 30 percent in “clutch time” this postseason, but has made three of his five shots against the Thunder.

James has been better in the clutch this year in the Finals because he isn't settling for long-distance jump shots. His average shot distance is 11.6 feet in “clutch time”, compared to 22.9 feet against the Mavericks last year, when he missed all seven of his field goals in those situations.


Since the 2-3-2 format began in 1985, 13 teams have trailed 3-1 in the NBA Finals. None of those 13 teams went on to win the title. In fact, none of the series even went to a deciding Game 7.

Statistical Support from NBA.com