Allen had just hit a layup off a backdoor cut and a deft feed from Kevin Garnett and drawn a foul on Lakers guard Steve Blake in the process. As Allen converted the three-point play, he gave the Celtics a three-point lead.
He also made the Celtics’ final appearance at the charity stripe.
The Celtics’ 88-87 overtime loss to the Lakers on Thursday could be attributed to many things. The Celtics’ offensive execution went static when the Lakers basically refused to defend Rajon Rondo at all. Celtics big men Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox, Brandon Bass and Garnett sold out so enthusiastically on defense that they were out of position for rebounds, handing Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol easy second-chance points.
But the inability to get even a few foul shots down the stretch, after going a perfect 5-for-5 from the line, doomed the Celtics against an opponent as exacting to detail as the Lakers.
For the final six minutes of the first half, the entire second half and all of overtime, the Celtics did not attempt a single free throw. That’s 35 minutes of having to earn every point, and that’s not a sustainable approach for a team that fancies itself a championship contender.
The Celtics have spent most of this season near the bottom of the NBA in free throw attempts and currently sit 25th in the league with an average of 20.2 foul shots per game. This is not a new trend, as the Celtics were 21st in free throw attempts last season, plummeting from 10th in that category in 2009-10.
If they couldn’t hit free throws anyway, this wouldn’t really matter. No one complains when Bynum, a 58 percent foul shooter, is unable to get to the line.
The Celtics were one of the league’s best at the line last season, though, and are back at No. 11 this season. At 76 percent as a team, there’s a good chance that they’ll hit the free throw given the opportunity. If Allen is the guy at the line, the chance is more than good. The career 89-percent free throw shooter only got two freebies Thursday while the Lakers were going 15-for-20 from the line. In a one-point game, that 15-shot disparity from the line made all the difference.
The matter has only been exacerbated in this condensed season, with all its back-to-backs and lengthy road trips that seem like they were made up by folks who had never seen a U.S map. (Seriously, Detroit and Dallas on consecutive nights?)
The Celtics have had seven games this season in which they attempted 16 free throw attempts or fewer, and have been out-attempted at the foul line in 16 of their 25 games. They took eight free throws Tuesday against the Bobcats before taking just the five on Thursday.
Free throws do more than just give a team a chance for one or two or three easy points. They provide a break in the action for an older team like the Celtics to get its bearings in a heated, physical matchup. Considering all the shifting along the lane, the routines of shooters, the substitutions and the impromptu meetings between shots, a trip to the foul line can give a team more than a minute to catch its breath.
When the jumper isn’t falling — as it wasn’t for Garnett in the fourth quarter or overtime Thursday — there has to be another way. Aside from Pierce, the Celtics don’t have anyone who can muscle his way into the lane, make a few pivots and up-fakes and draw contact. If you’re betting a 34-year-old forward will be able to take that beating on his own all season, I’ll take that bet.
Failing to get free throws can also signal a worrisome trend. Teams that get to the foul line with regularity are usually young, quick, deep and aggressive like the Thunder, Heat or Nuggets. They’ll bull their way to the hoop no matter what the defense does. That’s a bit of an intimidating thought for an opponent.
Teams that don’t get to the foul line are, well, exactly the opposite. It is no coincidence the Phoenix Suns, guided by a 38-year-old point guard in Steve Nash, are dead last in free throw attempts. Those are the same Suns that partnered with the Celtics in a mid-January snoozefest that featured a total of 25 free throws. Opponents have much less to worry about against these teams, which are typically slow, deliberate and old.
Celtics supporters were giddy three weeks ago in criticizing the Magic, who depend heavily on their 3-point shooting. The long ball is a great weapon when it’s going in, they laughed in a patronizing tone, but on an off night it’s a recipe for 31-point beatdowns like the one the Celtics gave the Magic on Jan. 23.
That’s all true, except the Celtics’ reliance on deep 2-pointers isn’t very different from Orlando’s dependance on 3’s. The main difference is that the Celtics don’t get that extra point when their shots go in.
Free throws alone will not win the Celtics every game, and their struggles to get to the line may not end up hurting them at all. After all, they have won nine of their last 11 games and have a chance to make it 10 for 12 with the last-place Raptors hosting on Friday.
This grind of a season is not even halfway over, though, and the marathon postseason is still more than 2 1/2 months away. That’s a long time to go without sneaking in a few easy ones to offset all the hard work they did to find a decent shot.
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