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Thunder winning via the free-throw line

The Thunder is having a solid season and Thunder fans are enjoying it, thank you very much. It’s not a juggernaut of a basketball team. Just a good squad that wins more than its share of games and has a good time doing it.

The Thunder doesn’t do much of anything great. OKC is ninth (out of 30 teams) in field-goal percentage, which is good – John Wooden always called field-goal percentage (and opponents’ field-goal percentage) the most important stat in basketball. Of course, that was before the 3-point skewed the metrics, but still.

The Thunder is fifth in 2-point percentage, which sounds about right, since OKC is 23rd in 3-point percentage (.343). Hey, I thought the Thunder was supposed to be better from deep this season? But last season, with Russell Westbrook chunking at an alarmingly poor and high rate, the Thunder was 22nd in 3-point shooting (.348). It’s a strange game.

The Thunder is ninth in (fewest) turnovers per game (14.0). That’s a healthy stat. But it’s not really an improvement – OKC was 14th in turnovers last season, but with the same average (14.0). Teams aren’t quite as careful with the ball this season, I guess.

The Thunder is fourth in the NBA in fewest 3-point shots allowed per game (31.5). That’s a good development. OKC is allowing .349 shooting by opponents on 3-pointers, 14th in the league, but minimizing opponents’ 3-pointers is good. It’s become a 3-point league; making people run when they want to pass is good football. Making teams shoot inside the arc when they want to jack from deep is good basketball.

The Thunder also ranks high in assists per game (22.8), steals per game (7.0) and blocked shots per game (4.1). When the ball moves like you’re drawing a star, good things happen. And the little things have become a calling card of this Thunder team.

But there’s one category in which the Thunder leads the league, and it’s not a little thing. It’s an often-forgotten thing, but it’s not little. It’s a huge factor in winning and losing.

The Thunder leads the NBA in allowing the fewest foul shots per game – 18.3.

We don’t think too often about foul shots per game, taken or allowed. We think about foul shots made or percentage, and we rage about officiating all the time.

But the simple volume of foul shots, not so much. And that’s a huge part of basketball.

The Thunder averages taking 24.3 foul shots per game, which ranks sixth in the NBA. It allows 18.3 foul shots per game. That’s a difference of 6.0 per game. That’s three extra possessions, about 4.5 points per game. That’s the difference between winning and losing all those close games in which the Thunder find itself in.

No other team is close to the Thunder in foul-shot difference. The Bucks, with the NBA’s best record, are in second place, at 4.3. The Magic and the Rockets are tied for third at 3.9.

That’s right. The Thunder has a larger foul-shots margin than does Houston, which has James Harden and thus gets inexplicable trips to the foul line all game long.

Helping the cause is the Thunder’s .798 foul shooting percentage, which ranks fifth in the NBA. Danilo Gallinari has made 90.2 percent of his foul shots, Chris Paul 89.8 percent, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 82.4 percent, Dennis Schroder 82 percent, Terrance Ferguson 81.8 percent, Nerlens Noel 80.8 percent and Abdel Nader 80 percent. Steve Adams’ 57 percent is the only albatross at the line.

Of course, hurting the cause is that opponents’ are shooting a league-best 80.2 percent from the line. When the Thunder does foul, it fouls good shooters.

But that’s the point. The Thunder isn’t fouling much – 22.7 fouls per game, which ranks third in the NBA for fewest. Part of that could be attributed to all the close games. If it’s a tight game, you don’t have to foul at the end of games to mount a comeback. If it’s a 10-point deficit with a minute left, you foul. If it’s a five-point deficit with a minute left, you don’t foul.

But defending without fouling is a cornerstone of a good defense. And it all made me wonder. Has the Thunder accumulated a bunch of players who know how to defend without fouling? Or are the whistles just going OKC’s way?

I checked the rotational players for fouls per 36 minutes and compared it to their career averages.

SGA: 1.6 this season, 2.9 last season, his rookie year with the Clippers. Improvement is natural for a second-year player, but that’s a whopping leap.

Gallinari: 1.6 this season, 2.1 for his career.

Paul: 2.7 this season, 2.5 for his career.

Schroder: 2.6 this season, 2.7 for his career.

Adams: 2.3 this season, 3.5 for his career. Adams’ big foul years were early in his career. He averaged 6.1 fouls per 36 minutes his rookie year, then 4.5 and 4.0. But then came 2.9, 3.1 and last year’s 2.8. He’s learned to crack heads and reject shots without fouling. Adams probably is the key to all this, since defenders know they don’t have to reach to stop a penetrator, since Adams is back to serve as a great barrier reef (forgive me, Stone Cold, for the Australian reference).

Ferguson: 4.5 this season, 4.3 for his career. Ferguson is a fouling machine, and that hasn’t changed, but man, give him credit. He’s guarding James Harden one night, Pascal Siakam the next. How does Ferguson not have 4.5 fouls per six minutes?

Darius Bazley: 2.0 fouls per 36 minutes this season, his rookie year. That’s a good number for a 19-year-old who tries to block shots and also guards out on the perimeter a decent amount of time.

Noel: 4.9 this season, 4.0 for his career. Noel fouled 5.7 per 36 minutes last season, so he’s been a fouler since arriving in OKC.

Nader: 2.9 this season, 3.2 for his career (3.5 last season, 3.1 his rookie year in Boston). So getting a little better.

Hamidou Diallo: 4.2 this season, 5.3 last season, his rookie year with OKC. Diallo has gotten much better.

Mike Muscala: 3.5 this season, 3.4 for his career.

So nothing magical. The Thunder veterans know how to play, and the Thunder young players are learning. Put it together, and you’ve got fewer fouls. Which is a ticket to winning in the NBA.

Related Photos
Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) shoots his second free throw with 4.3 seconds left during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. Oklahoma City won 109-106. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]

Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) shoots his second free throw with 4.3 seconds left during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. Oklahoma City won 109-106. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-3de5bae28143f2df7464f020342c008d.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) shoots his second free throw with 4.3 seconds left during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. Oklahoma City won 109-106. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]" title="Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) shoots his second free throw with 4.3 seconds left during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. Oklahoma City won 109-106. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]"><figcaption>Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) shoots his second free throw with 4.3 seconds left during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. Oklahoma City won 109-106. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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