Jedi mind tricks, imaginary cliffs and the dark art of ... free throw defense?

Katie, Jacoby are here for Rondo's sweat ball (1:15)

Katie Nolan and David Jacoby have to respect Rajon Rondo's sweat-covered basketball trick. (1:15)

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Nov. 26, 2019.

BILLY DONOVAN IS confused by the question. His Oklahoma City Thunder have ranked near the bottom of the league in one statistical category all season long, and he has no idea what to make of it.

It's late November and Donovan is standing in the Thunder's practice facility, playing the hits in advance of a game the next day: adjustments, getting back in transition, pick-and-roll coverages.

But this question is different. This one doesn't seem to have an answer.

Puzzled, Donovan shakes his head, leans in a little closer and hunts for clarification.

"Opposing free throw percentage?" he says. "I'm not quite sure I know what that means ..."

Believe it or not, it is a real stat -- simply how well opposing teams shoot free throws against you -- and the Thunder do indeed stink at it; foes hit 79.7% against them, 27th in the league. The NBA average is around 76%, and considering OKC is losing games by 0.4 points on average, everything matters.

These are the kinds of things that haunt coaches. NBA games are decided in the margins, and finding loose change under the statistical cushion is an advantage.

That's why, despite the confusion, Donovan's interest is piqued.

"So teams are shooting 80% against us? I mean, it's really hard for us, when teams are shooting that kind of percentage," he says, still searching for a reasonable answer.

"If I make JJ Redick miss a free throw? S---. That is a good night for us because JJ don't miss."
Nets center DeAndre Jordan

Maybe by pure coaching instinct, Donovan has unwittingly tried methods to improve the Thunder's free throw defense. He is a proponent of icing the shooter, but he likes to do it right in the middle of the game. If he is going to use a timeout, he'll just take it between free throws.

Still, small sample size notwithstanding, shooters are 9-of-11 (81.9%) this season on free throw attempts against OKC after Donovan takes a timeout.

"I try to do that to break some rhythm, but it hasn't gone too well if they're shooting 80 percent," Donovan says.

The Philadelphia 76ers are first in the league in opponent free throw percentage, allowing just 73%.

So what gives?

"That's a great question. Haven't really thought about that one before," Donovan says, even soliciting a few guesses from other assembled media. "I really don't know what would cause that."

There's more: Under Scott Brooks, the Thunder (jokingly) appointed director of basketball communications Matt Tumbleson as the team's "defensive free throw coach." And in 2013-14, the Thunder were first in the league, allowing 72.7% to opponents at the stripe. But under Donovan, and without the seemingly expert oversight of Tumbleson, the Thunder have regressed.

All of which sounds completely absurd, right?

Well, it is, but it raises a fundamental question: Can you guard the unguardable? Can you defend the indefensible?

"There are a lot of things that we focus on that we, you know, actually have control over," Donovan says. "That's one I wish I did, but I don't have any control over that."

Or maybe he does.

As Donovan's media session wraps up, he cracks a smile and says, "Well, now I'm going to go look into this."

IT'S GAME 2 of the opening round of the 2019 Western Conference playoffs, and Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant is at the free throw line to shoot two with 5:26 left in the fourth quarter. The Warriors are leading the LA Clippers by three points.

Durant, a career 88.3% free throw shooter, goes into his trademark routine: Spin the ball, one dribble, spin it again, another dribble, bend the knees and shimmy the shoulders.

To his right, Patrick Beverley stands still -- or at least he does until Durant prepares to release the ball. That's when Beverley lurches forward like he is trying not to fall off an imaginary cliff, acting like he is about to lose his balance and fall on his face.

Durant misses.

On this day in NBA Finals history: June 1, 1997

'The mailman doesn't deliver on Sunday'

With one more to shoot, Durant leans in to high-five teammates Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. But as he does, Beverley crosses over the paint, lingering for an extra beat right in the middle of his gathering opponents.

Durant looks at the referee, seeking some kind of acknowledgement, shakes his head and rolls his eyes. Next attempt -- spin it, dribble, spin again, bend, shimmy -- and Beverley, now to Durant's left, teeters on the edge of the cliff once more.

Durant makes this one, jogging back on defense with his hands raised, sporting a "C'mon man" smirk.

Here's a fact that's sure to disappoint every loudmouth behind a basket in the NBA: All that stuff fans do -- clanging things together, yelling, waving arms, shaking bellies -- doesn't actually seem to work. Last season, players shot 76.7% on free throws at home versus 76.6% on the road.

But to study the secret underworld of free throw defense is to uncover that there are in fact ways for players to force a free throw miss. It takes cleverness and creativity, but it actually is possible. The methods are limited only by your imagination.

That, and the rulebook. Technically, Beverley's method is illegal.

There's a name for those types of free throw shenanigans: disconcertion. Rule No. 9, Section I, Point F states:

During all free throw attempts, no opponent in the game shall disconcert the shooter once the ball is placed at his disposal. The following are acts of disconcertion:

  • Raising his arms when positioned on the lane line on a free throw which will not remain in play,

  • Waving his arms or making a sudden movement when in the visual field of the shooter during any free throw attempt,

  • Talking to the free throw shooter or talking in a loud, disruptive manner during any free throw,

  • Entering the lane and continuing to move during any free throw.

But illegal or not, the dark art of free throw defense has its own army of practitioners.

Ryan Hollins is not one of them. On the NBA website, where the rulebook is accompanied by videos illustrating various infractions, the example for "acts of disconcertion" is of former journeyman guard Jordan Farmar taking a free throw while Hollins walks prematurely into the lane with a sudden jolt.

Farmar immediately objects and wins his appeal, getting a fresh free throw.

Hollins' mistake? He was too obvious. There's a skill to properly irritating a free throw shooter. It's not against the rules unless you get caught.

Russell Westbrook, one of the savviest free throw defenders in the league, has a more nuanced go-to move. It's similar to Beverley's cliffhanger but more subtle. Right as the shooter raises the ball over his head, Westbrook will go from bent over with hands on his knees, to popping straight up.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Westbrook said when asked about it, with one part wink-wink and another part don't-you-dare-ask-another-question-about-this.

You saw it just two weeks ago, when the Houston Rockets visited the New Orleans Pelicans. With 1:58 remaining in the second quarter, Pelicans forward Josh Hart was fouled when Westbrook went for an open-court steal. Just as Hart was about to fire his first freebie, there was Westbrook, popping up, executing his move to perfection. Hart missed and shot Westbrook a glare.

And it's not as if referees don't notice too.

"You don't call the violation the first time it ever happens unless it was super [obvious]," said former referee Monty McCutchen, now the NBA's vice president of referee development and training.

"You address it. You run the game. You say, 'You're going to put me in a box here to call something, and that's gonna be embarrassing for you,'" McCutchen explained.

"You have to make a judgment. If I clearly see him hitch his free throw right as you barked out, that's disconcertion. I'm giving him another free throw."

The variations on this move are many: There's crossing the lane at the very last moment to try to disrupt a routine. There's yelling out directions about boxing out or about what man you have right as the shot is being released. There are coordinated tricks, like an assistant coach hollering out instructions and the player quickly turning around to "listen" as the shot is going up. There is bending over to tie a shoe.

"Guys might step in front of you before a big couple free throws late in the game and try to throw you off your rhythm," said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a career 86.4% free throw shooter.

"Most players have a routine, and rather than let the player bother you, you just start over with your routine. Almost like a golfer backing off a putt."

BROOKLYN NETS BIG MAN DeAndre Jordan experienced a free throw renaissance last season, almost exclusively because of a reworked routine. It's odd, but it works.

The mechanics are the same. The high follow-through is identical. It starts with Jordan chasing down the ball, touching it immediately after the foul, before he takes his spot at the line. He then looks at a teammate and asks, "Who do you got?" Two dribbles and pull.

Jordan went from a career 45% free throw shooter to hitting 70.5% last season. And soon enough, opposing players caught on.

In a game last October, Atlanta Hawks veteran Vince Carter walked by and tried to slap the ball away from Jordan as he palmed it next to a referee to begin the ritual. Then-Clipper Mike Scott did the same a few weeks later, jumping to intercept as Jordan went for the first touch.

The Pelicans took it to the extreme last December, playing a mini version of keep-away to mess with Jordan. If you can mess with routine, you can mess with results.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Rajon Rondo, for his part, is a master of both nuisance and nuance, always looking for shrewd ways to gain an advantage. Last season, during a January game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Rondo took things a bit too far.

Rondo, standing two feet from the sideline near his team's bench, chucked a towel back to a trainer squatting like a baseball catcher as free throw shooter Taj Gibson was mid-shot.

Gibson swished the free throw anyway, and Rondo was hit with a technical foul.

"S--- cost me some money," Rondo said. "[But] I'll do anything to win."

Rondo's signature troll is interrupting the NBA high-five party that forms in the lane between the first and second free throws. He'll invite himself and intercept high-fives, even going so far as to block them altogether. You know, standard routine-disruption stuff.

But two seasons ago during a playoff game against the Warriors while he was with the Pelicans, Rondo painted the Sistine Chapel of free throw distraction, quickly wiping his sweaty face on the ball right before Draymond Green toed the line. The refs never noticed.

"Any way I can make anybody miss a free throw, especially in a crucial moment, I'm all for it," Rondo said. "I mean, it works. If I don't do a damn thing, sometimes they might miss anyway. It just depends. I think psychologically, sometimes it works."

The charity stripe is basketball psychological warfare. Most players disagree with the call that put their opponent at the foul line to begin with, so why not right the wrong and restore balance to the game yourself? The ball must not tell lies.

Some techniques are slightly more difficult to ignore, such as:

Lucas Nogueira dropping his shorts to his knees as Derrick Favors stood at the line in 2017. (Favors missed.) Kobe Bryant deploying the cliffhanger on Kyle Korver (87.7% career free throw shooter) in 2013 with 15 seconds left in a one-point game. (Korver missed.) LeBron James touching Gilbert Arenas on the shoulder in the 2006 playoffs and saying something to him in a one-point game. (Arenas missed.)

Free throws are supposed to be free. But players keep finding new ways to make their opponents pay.

IT'S NOT ALL dropped drawers, tossed towels and fake cliffs, though. The most universal approach to free throw defense is common trash talk -- that is, simple mind games.

Perhaps the most infamous example: Sunday, June 1, 1997, Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz. There are 9.2 seconds left, the game is tied 82-82. After Dennis Rodman fouls him on a loose ball, Karl Malone stands at the line. Scottie Pippen casually walks by Malone, quietly chirping into the 1997 MVP's ear with some of the most epic trash talk in NBA history.

The Mailman doesn't deliver on Sunday.

With the United Center roaring, Malone goes through his routine, a few dribbles, two eye-level spins of the ball, a bend of the knees with a little bounce. He lifts the ball high with a slight hitch, his comically huge white wristbands engulfing the ball, and holds the follow-through.

Misses the first.

Misses the second.

Seven seconds later, Michael Jordan hits a buzzer-beating, pull-up jumper over Bryon Russell to take Game 1.

Trash talk worked then. And more than 20 years later, it works all the same today.

JJ Redick, an 89% career free thrower, said that passing comments such as, "I know you're gonna give me one here" are pretty standard. He said he often has noticed someone from the bench yelling right as he shoots.

"You can count on it when we play the Raptors, [Toronto assistant coach] Jamaal Magloire is gonna stand up and yell while you're shooting free throws. It's just gonna happen," Redick said. "I do the same s---."

Redick said that when he played with Hedo Turkoglu, the Turkish forward would yell, "Oh, that's off!" right as someone was shooting. But Turkoglu said it with a thick accent in a deep, baritone voice.

"So it comes off, 'Ohhh, dats ufff!'" Redick said, doing an admirably committed impression of Turkoglu. These days, as an inside joke to only himself, Redick will employ, "Ohhh, dats ufff!" in his best Turkoglu voice on other shooters.

"I still do that," Redick said, laughing to himself. "It sometimes works. All a little bit of gamesmanship."

Still, Redick concedes there's one way -- or more specifically, one person -- that can make him miss.

"The only person that could really mess me up is DeAndre [Jordan]," Redick said. "He'd be the one guy. He would say some off-the-wall s--- that would just make me laugh."

Jordan offered his explanation.

"That is because we were teammates for so long, I got some inside jokes," he said. "If I can make somebody think about me at the free throw line and they miss a shot or tell the ref that I am doing something, that is a point for us.

"If I make JJ Redick miss a free throw? S---. That is a good night for us because JJ don't miss."

Other troll masters engage in Jedi mind tricks, flipping the thought process, reversing the psychology.

"You might tell 'em you know they're gonna make it," said Thunder guard Chris Paul. "If he misses it, of course you're gonna say that's why he missed it. It's always a game within a game."

It's easy to miss the subtleties of the free throw battle. Free throws are, by all appearances, boring. That's the irony in this. The action halts. Everyone stands around and watches. A fast-paced, highly intense sport hits the brakes.

Fans can't hear the conversations on the court between players. They can't hear the debates with refs. They can't hear adjustments being relayed from the bench. But for those on the floor, it's one of the most personal times of a game.

"It's the real community part, the watering hole, if you will, of an NBA game," McCutchen said.

Referees monitor the trash talk to make sure it stays at the appropriate temperature. They do their research. They read up on Twitter beefs, they know if two guys grew up together, they are aware of past history. It all goes into how they approach situations like free throw line trash talk.

"Gamesmanship is something that we want," McCutchen said, "[but] at a healthy level."

FREE THROWS ARE as much a mental challenge as they are physical -- maybe even more. The stories of a bad free throw shooter making 30 in a row in practice are endless. Steven Adams, a 38.7% free throw shooter this season for the Thunder, routinely makes nine of 10 during free throw shooting games after practices.

But at the core of a quality free throw shooter is nerve -- the ability to block out the noise. The best free throwers are those steadfast at the stripe.

"For sure," said Warriors guard Stephen Curry, when asked if he notices the tactics. "And I love it because they actually think it works. But it doesn't."

Curry -- a 90.5% free throw shooter, one of the best of all time -- has a simple routine, highly repeatable. He is a great shooter and nearly impossible to rattle. Except, he said, for one time.

"My brother got me last year," Curry said, shaking his head in disgust.

Curry was in the midst of a postseason fourth-quarter streak. A ridiculous one at that. Dating back to 2015, he had made 81 consecutive fourth quarter and/or overtime free throws in playoff games. And so it was that his brother, Seth Curry, oh-so-casually mentioned it to him in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

"I just laughed it off," Steph said, "because I knew about it beforehand. But the fact he mentioned it just added a little something extra to it."

Steph made both fourth-quarter free throws in Game 1 and winked back at Seth. Not today, buddy.

"And then Game 4, I missed one -- and my immediate reaction was to look at him," Steph said. "You could care less if it was the Western Conference Finals, closeout game to go to the Finals, whatever it was, I immediately looked at him and was like, 'Oh, you got me.' That's the only time I can think of someone messing with me and it worked."

"That's actually good," Redick said of Seth Curry's jinx. "That's a good way to do it. Put something out in the universe and it's gonna come back."

With the rise of analytics, the free throw is valuable currency. It is one of the most efficient plays in the game: Two-shot trips to the line yield an expected 1.52 points, according to ESPN Analytics, better than every shot type other than dunks.

The free throw is a wide-open shot, unguarded, with time to set, breathe and go through a complete routine. And here's the thing: You can't defend it.

Or maybe you actually can.