When it comes to free throws, LeBron James is the Cal Ripken Jr. of basketball.
“I think it has been documented that LeBron changes his technique every three games,” Dwyane Wade joked on Friday, a practice day for the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena.
As the old joke goes, Ripken Jr. got to 3,000 hits with about 3,000 different batting stances. In basketball circles, James’ alterations and adjustments at the line are just as legendary, though probably not as unorthodox. Had Ripken been a basketball player, he probably would have given granny-style free throws a try.
James isn’t going to be calling legendary Miami Hurricane Rick Barry anytime soon to discuss the underhanded approach, but the NBA’s four-time Most Valuable Player is certainly open to suggestions when it comes to shooting foul shots. His current mentor: Ray Allen, one of the game’s best free-throw shooters with a career average of .894. (For the record, Barry shot .893. in the pros.)
With the Heat in a holding pattern until it learns its next opponent, James has had plenty of downtime to work on his free throws, which are always of premium importance in the postseason. In recent days, James’ preferred method of practicing free throws and, more importantly, recreating the type of pressure he might feel at the line during a playoff game, is a competition-style game against Allen.
More often than not, Allen steps to the line in the Heat’s practice gym and drains 10 free throws in a row. James says he just tries not to “look crazy.”
“You don’t want to look crazy making six out of 10 when he’s making 10 out of 10 every time,” James said. “So, he puts pressure on me to make free throws, and I just try to translate what we do in practice into the game.”
Although James has changed his free-throw approach constantly during his career — most recently he went back to wearing an arm sleeve because he thought it would help him at the foul line — Allen is instructing James to cut out excess motion in his routine and focus on the same repetitive motion. It seems to be helping. Oh, and James ditched the arm sleeve again.
James shot 75.3 percent from the free-throw line this season but was 42 of 52 (80.8 percent) in the Eastern Conference semifinals. In crunch-time situations (defined by NBA.com as ahead or behind by five points with five minutes to play), James was 6 of 8 from the line against the Bulls.
“We’ve talked ad nauseam about his bad habits when he misses free throws, so he kind of has a better idea of it,” Allen said. “He should watch real film of it. Not just game film, but on the court practicing. And then find that routine and stick to it and give himself a better chance.”
Comparing game film from the first and second rounds, James bent his knees more before his free throws against the Bucks. But there are more subtle differences as well, noted Allen.
When James brings the ball “to the top of his head, is when he keeps the ball in rhythm,” Allen said. “And sometimes when he does that he shoots it short because he tries to feather the ball, but as long as he keeps the ball right there, he gives [himself] a better chance.”
When James went 11 of 11 from the free-throw line in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Wade said James “was smiling like a little kid just for making all his free throws, and I’m sure he rubbed it in Ray’s face.”
Even for stars like James and Wade, shooting like Allen is the gold standard.
“It’s good to have someone around who is so great at something, and if you get a chance to beat him — like in a three-point contest — I beat him once and I’m not shooting with him ever again,” Wade said.
James has defeated Allen a few times in three-point contests after practices, and all that extra work has helped James from behind the arc in games. He shot a career-best average (.406) from three-point range this season while also shooting a career high from the field (.565).
What’s next on James’ list of goals? The Holy Grail for shooters in the NBA is 50-40-90, or shooting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line in a season. Steve Nash has done it four times. Larry Bird did it twice. Kevin Durant did it this season. Allen has come close more than a few times.
James might get to the free-throw line too frequently to shoot 90 percent, but don’t tell him that.
“I can achieve anything if I just make it a goal of [mine],” James said. “I never made it a goal of mine. If I decided to do it, yeah I could make it happen.”
Just don’t expect him to stick with the same routine.