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No charity for Celtics at stripe

1/29/2015

The free-throw disparity that the Boston Celtics endured during Wednesday's 110-98 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves might have been more alarming if it didn't feel like the norm.

The Celtics attempted a mere nine free throws while drawing just six shooting fouls while Minnesota generated 32 free throws while registering 11 shooting fouls.

You can chalk some of that disparity up to Boston playing its sixth road game in 10 nights to close out its longest trip of the season. It seems fair to assume that Boston's legs were a bit weary and the Celtics were content to settle for perimeter jumpers (49 of Boston's 91 shots came from beyond 16 feet) rather than attack the basket.

But a lack of free throws isn't a new issue for Boston. The Celtics rank 27th in free throws attempts per game this season, the same spot they occupied last season. The Celtics have ranked in the bottom third of the league in free throw attempts per game each of the past five seasons and you'd have to go back to the 2009-10 campaign to find them at the opposite end of the spectrum (10th overall that year).

In a way, the Celtics seem resigned to their lack of free-throw generation. Celtics coach Brad Stevens has expressed a desire to drive up the team's attempt rate, but also acknowledged that his squad, as currently constituted, is built to generate points in other ways. Boston guards, as a whole, don't create a lot of dribble penetration, a problem that's long been lamented, even when Rajon Rondo was still here and seemed reluctant to draw fouls going at the basket.

To be certain, there is no obvious link between free throw attempt rate and success. As an example, the Sacramento Kings are far and away the leader in the NBA in free throw attempt rate (the ratio of free throws generated compared to field goal attempts) at .372 this season and the Kings own the same exact 16-28 record as Boston.

The Celtics FTA rate is a meager.224, ranking them 29th overall (only the Knicks are worse at .216). That said, the Golden State Warriors (.250) are in the bottom five overall; the Spurs (.268) are on the cusp of the bottom 10; and the Atlanta Hawks (.281) are middle of the pack. Low free-throw attempt rates are not an insurmountable obstacle for quality teams.

What aids Boston -- and some of those other top squads mentioned -- is how it limits free throws for opponents. The Celtics rank 12th with opponents owning a .270 FTA rate this season. The Hawks (.248) and Spurs (.263) both reside in the top 10 for opponent FTA.

Building towards the future, it certainly wouldn't hurt Boston to seek players that can get to the line more frequently, particularly when the team's shots are not falling. Boston is hopeful that rookie Marcus Smart will get to the line more often as he gets comfortable as a driver at the NBA level and young bigs like Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller must learn to draw more whistles when working around the basket.

Consider that Jeff Green led the Celtics while averaging 4.4 free throw attempts per game this season. With his recent departure, Boston's new leader in free throw attempts per game is Brandon Bass at a mere 2.6 per contest. That's sobering when you consider old friend Paul Pierce averaged 7.2 free throw attempts per game over his 15 seasons with Boston.

The Celtics rank dead last in the NBA drawing only 18 personal fouls per game. For a team that struggles to generate consistent offense, not getting to the line often certainly doesn't make that task any easier.

Boston's young nucleus of players might simply need to learn how to draw fouls. If you look at blocked attempts per game, it suggests Boston is generating foul opportunities. That Kings team that leads the league in FTA rate is getting blocked a league-high 6.1 times per game, suggesting a lot of activity around the basket. Boston ranks eighth while getting blocked 5.5 times per contest. If the Celtics could turn one or two of those blocks into trips to the foul line each game, it would go a long way towards boosting their FTA rate.

For now, the Celtics simply must continue to figure out how to get by with a lack of charity.