OKLAHOMA CITY -- At this time two years ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were 3-29, a figure that gets forgotten because of how much they have accomplished since. The Thunder lost five games in the last six seconds that season, and coach Scott Brooks would stay up until sunrise, wondering what he could do to close the gap.
"We were in a lot of close games back then," Brooks said, "and with the kind of team we had, I knew we'd be in a lot more."
Part of transforming the Thunder into contenders, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook into fourth-quarter closers, was emphasizing the importance of the free throw. If the Thunder were going to be in a thriller every night, they could not afford to leave points on the table.
In 2008-09, the Thunder shot 78.6 percent from the free-throw line, ninth in the NBA. They were adequate by any standard, but Brooks believed they needed to be better than 80 percent. After every practice, he would divide the team into pairs, sending them to each of the eight baskets in the facility. Every pair was ordered to compete in a free-throw shooting game: two points for a swish, one for a make, none for a miss -- first to 21 wins. If you're stuck on 20, you have to use glass. Brooks wrote a running list of winners and losers.
"Guys are into it," point guard Eric Maynor said. "We let you know if you're getting beat."
Last season, the Thunder shot 80.5 percent from the line, breaking Brooks' barrier. This season, they are shattering every other threshold, leading the NBA with 84.3 percent, on pace to break the all-time record of 83.2 percent set by the Boston Celtics in 1989-90. The most common lament among casual fans is that the modern player cannot shoot free throws, but the Thunder are one of the youngest teams in the league, and they are having no trouble. They did not shoot under 80 percent in a game until the season was a month old. They have shot over 90 percent six times. They sank 33 of 34 against Utah, 28 of 29 against Houston, 35 of 37 against Philadelphia, 25 of 27 against Minnesota. The 22-year-old Durant is shooting 89 percent and the 22-year-old Westbrook is shooting 87 percent, and when Durant misses one, Westbrook calls him Shaq.
Free-throw shooting saved the Thunder from what could have been a ruinous start. They were outscored from the field in each of their first 10 games, but made up so many points at the line, they emerged from that stretch 6-4 instead of 0-10. Now that they have started to hit shots from other places on the floor, they are 21-11, about where they expected to be. Close finishes, which used to doom the Thunder, have become their specialty. They are 12-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer, mainly because they take advantage of charity. In a game against New Orleans last month, the Thunder trailed by two heading to the fourth quarter, but made 16 of 17 freebies in the fourth. The Hornets made 3 of 5.
If the Thunder were not drawing fouls, their free-throw percentage would not matter so much. But they lead the NBA in free-throw attempts as well, a byproduct of their relentless style, in which Westbrook and Durant are constantly attacking the rim. Spot-up shooters typically make the best foul shooters, but the Thunder are actually the worst three-point shooting team in the league, embracing one line a lot more than the other. Judging from their roster, filled with young drivers and big men, they would not seem like such marksman. But seven players on the team are shooting 82 percent or better from the stripe. Even power forward Serge Ibaka, a 63 percent-free throw shooter last season, is up to more than 80 percent.
"I try to take what we do after practice and bring it to the games," Ibaka said.
The Thunder are as opportunistic as their coach used to be. Brooks was a career 84.9 percent free-throw shooter -- just six-tenths of a point better than what the Thunder are right now -- who improved to 90 percent in his last season. When Brooks was with the Knicks in 1996-97, team broadcaster Mike Breen challenged him to a free-throw contest after a shootaround in Phoenix, and they both drained 40 in a row. Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy eventually grew tired of watching them and ordered them onto the bus. But before Opening Night this season, when Breen was in Oklahoma City to broadcast a game between the Thunder and the Bulls for ESPN, he walked onto the court in the practice facility and told Brooks: "We need to finish it." Breen made 39 straight free throws, missing No. 40. Brooks made 41, banking the clincher.
Another heart-stopper in Oklahoma City, decided at the line.