Frank Vogel is taking a lot of heat today because of his decision to put Roy Hibbert on the bench for the final play of overtime, perhaps allowing LeBron James an easy path to the basket for the winning layup. Because it was the last thing to happen, and clutch shots seem to always evoke a discussion about either the shooter’s clutchiness or the opponents’ lack of such, Vogel is the center of attention. But the Pacers were actually pretty fortunate to be ahead at the end of the game, or to have made it overtime at all, really.
While I was watching the game, I noticed that the Heat seemed to be doing pretty poorly from the free throw line. As it turns out, the Heat did shoot kind of poorly, only hitting 64% of their free throws. It was also a little unusual that the Pacers got 7 more free throws than the Heat overall; the Heat got to the line a little more than the Pacers during the regular season, and while the Pacers are a tiny bit better at preventing free throw opportunities than the Heat, it’s awfully close.
So, paralleling a post I did two playoffs ago, I decided to see how the Pacers and Heat should have done from the line. Here are two tables, one for each team, listing how many free throws were taken and made by each player to attempt one along with their regular season FT percentage and how many they would be expected to make.
The expected number is simply their free throw attempts in the game multiplied by their regular season free throw percentage. For example, David West took 8 free throws and was a 76.8% shooter this season. Multiply those two and you would expect West to make about 6 free throws on 8 shots. In last night’s game, though, he only made 4, so West was a little unlucky. You can do this for each player who took a free throw and then add them up for each team.
As it turns out, the Pacers were pretty much square on. West was unlucky but Paul George mostly made up for it. Overall the Pacers would be expected to make just under 25 free throws on their number of attempts and they made 24. The Heat, on the other hand, would be expected to hit about 19.5 but they only made 16. Wade was the big offender, although LeBron was a bit off and Ray Allen missed a notable free throw towards the end of regulation (although it’s hard to say that was lucky or unlucky given that he only took two shots).
If you put that together, the Heat should have had an extra two points in the game compared to the Pacers just from hitting their free throws. The difference is almost entirely from regulation, as both teams made every free throw they took in overtime. So if you grant the Heat an extra two points at the end of the game, which the Pacers had no chance of affecting since they committed the fouls anyway and just had to watch the Heat shoot, they would have won in regulation despite Paul George’s desperation three pointer.
Of course, you could argue that if the Heat had made a couple extra free throws, the game would have played out differently as the Pacers would have had to foul or take different shots at the end. And that’s obviously valid, but it also draws attention to the foolishness of blaming Vogel for the last play of overtime. If any of a number of things had swung a different way, the game would have played out differently and his decision wouldn’t have mattered or might have changed. I think that focusing on free throws is a relatively clean way of playing ‘what if’, since they would happen regardless and are defense-free, but they still aren’t free of criticism. But overall, despite how close the game was, I think if you combine the Heat’s poor free throw shooting and George’s lucky three at the end of regulation, it seems obvious that the Pacers were fortunate to get to overtime and it’s kind of petty to blame Vogel for the loss. Both teams played a tough game, and the Heat got the nod in the end.
As a side note, a “helpful” commenter on that linked post noted how someone at ESPN wrote basically the same analysis as I did and accused me of stealing it. He failed to notice that my post was up before the ESPN one, but who has time to fact-check before throwing around accusations of plagiarism? I bring this up only because more time has passed between the game and my post this time, so someone else might have noted the Heat’s poor shooting. You can only take my word for it that if so, I haven’t seen any articles that mention it. I do my best to put in links and attributions when my posts are based on or reference someone else’s work, so if I miss anything relevant I appreciate a friendly head’s up.