MIAMI — The Thunder has lost a very dear friend in the NBA Finals, and team members are doing what they can to overcome the loss.
Free-throw shooting has been the franchise's bedrock since it arrived in OKC four years ago.
The Thunder has finished ninth, second, first and first in the league in free-throw percentage. OKC's .823 accuracy last season ranks fifth on the NBA's all-time list.
This season's .806 was down a tad from a year ago, but it still finished comfortably atop the league.
In its quest to reach the NBA Finals, OKC arose to the occasion by shooting .835 at the line the first three rounds against the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs.
Alas, under the bright lights of the NBA Finals, the Thunder inexplicably has wilted at the line against the Miami Heat, shooting a putrid .701 — a percentage that would have ranked 28th in the league this season.
Going into free-fall at the free-throw line is no way to try and beat the mighty Heat for the NBA title, which helps explain why OKC trails 2-1 in the best-of-7 series.
Compounding the problem, Miami is sizzling at .859 at the line in the Finals. This comes after shooting a combined .723 the first three rounds of the playoffs, including .691 in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston.
Heading into the Finals, several unknown variables surrounded the young and impressionable Thunder, but tossing bricks from the free-throw line was not one of them.
So far in the series, the Heat has attempted one more free throw than OKC, yet has scored 13 more points at the line.
The Thunder hopes to relocate its long lost free-throw friend before Game 4 on Tuesday at 8 p.m. in American Airlines Arena. Otherwise, OKC might brick itself into a corner in a tale more horrifying than anything Edgar Allan Poe could imagine.
Trying to get to the root of the Thunder's line woes brings nothing by shrugged shoulders and shaking heads.
When a great free-throw shooting team suddenly goes cold from the line, it suggests nervousness. However, don't dare suggest that to a younger OKC player like James Harden, who defiantly dismissed the suggestion during Monday's interview sessions.
“You can't make every shot. You can't make every free throw,” said Harden, who is shooting .714 from the line in the Finals after shooting .846 in the regular season.
Even three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant is not himself. A career .878 marksman from the line, Durant is misfiring at .737 in the Finals.
“I don't know, man,” Durant said, searching for an explanation. “We've just got to make them next game. I wouldn't say it's nerves because we miss a free throw, and (we) then hit a big 3 after that or get a big stop and then hit a layup.”
Young Thunder players appear to be fighting the “Seven Stages of Grief” trying to cope with losing their shooting touch at the line.
The first stage is “shock and denial.” No doubt all this is shocking. As for denial, see the aforementioned replies from Harden and Durant.
Starting guard Thabo Sefolosha admitted it's nerves.
“I mean, what else could explain it?” said the 28-year-old Sefolosha. “There's no way around it and there's no reason to lie about it to ourselves. This is the Finals so, yeah, I would think we'd be pretty nervous. We've just got to go to the line and learn to clear our minds.”
In Sefolosha's opinion, free-throw shooting is one of many facets OKC needs to get straightened out if it's to win the NBA championship.
“We need to not play so much for the prize (trophy) right now, but play for our pride, you know,” Sefolosha said. “That's what we have to do.”
Perhaps no one is better than 16-year veteran Thunder point guard Derek Fisher at explaining the inexplicable, but even he has trouble gaining any traction.
“It's tough to explain it,” Fisher said. “Sometimes you just miss.
“It's interesting that with free-throw shooting, a lot of times it's the biggest example of basketball being a team game because it just sometimes gets contagious. A guy misses a free throw, then a guy who makes 99 percent, he'll miss a free throw and it just becomes this contagious thing that happens for some reason.
“It may or may not be nerves, but if it is, it's understandable. It's a part of the biggest stages in every sport. You have to figure out how to balance that emotion and those nerves. Those guys teeing off on hole No. 1 at the U.S. Open yesterday had some nerves. That just comes with the program. Those that kind of figure that out realize that maybe you have some nerves and how to just balance it and manage it. Those are the ones who ultimately end up being successful.”
Who better as an objective outside party than television analyst and former coach Jack Ramsey, who coached 1,647 NBA games and has been with the league since 1969?
“Has to be nerves. Has to be,” Ramsey said. “Now, nobody likes to admit that. I see no other reason for the best-shooting team in the league for the regular season and into the playoffs to this point to shoot like they've been shooting.”
Is it contagious?
“I think so,” Ramsey said. “Sometimes you have to go through these learning stages to beat it, and then it should be there forever. But some players let it haunt them, and they never get it back.”
As for the Heat suddenly heating up at the line, could someone please explain that?
“I don't know, man,” Miami guard Dwyane Wade said, seemingly embarrassed. “I think we got lucky that they missed some free throws (in Sunday's 91-85 loss in Game 3). They don't miss many. Unbelievable percentage as a team, and I think for us as a team, we've got to understand that.
“We shot poorly in the beginning of the playoffs from the free-throw line. I think we understand that if we want to reach our goal, we have to step up to the line and we have to make free throws when we get our opportunity. A lot of games can be lost at the line and they can be won at the line. I thought that we got lucky that they missed some (15 for 24), especially in the midst of our run to help us get back in the game. We missed a bullet there.”