In a loaded Western Conference that figures to be filled with knock-down, drag-it-out struggles on a regular basis, the Trail Blazers know they have this going for them:
Damian Lillard and his excellence at the free throw line.
Lillard has made 43 consecutive free throws dating back to the second quarter of the Blazers’ Oct. 30 game against Toronto and is shooting 92.3 percent for the season.
“My dad always made me shoot the ball,’’ Lillard explained about his free throw success. “He wouldn’t let me lower the hoop at home. He made me keep it up and learn how to shoot the ball.’’
This is the fourth streak of at least 40 consecutive free throws in Lillard’s career. He made 54 in a row in March of 2016, falling three short of Damon Stoudamire’s franchise record, and twice had streaks of 48, last accomplished in March of 2017.
The NBA record for consecutive free throws is 97, set over the course of two seasons (1992-1993 and 1993-1994) by Minnesota guard Micheal Williams.
“I don’t pay attention to how many I made in a row,’’ Lillard said. “I just know when I’m shooting it well.’’
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As the Blazers can attest, free-throw shooting figures to be a huge factor in the loaded West this season as close games figure to increase. The Blazers have already had a buzzer beating loss against the Clippers, an overtime loss at Utah, a buzzer-beating victory against the Lakers and a nail-biting 103-99 win Sunday against Oklahoma City. The Blazers also lost in Milwaukee in the final 11 seconds.
A factor in the loss against the Clippers was a missed free throw by CJ McCollum – the best free-throw shooter in the NBA last season -- with 5.1 seconds left. Meanwhile, the Blazers helped close out the Thunder by making 7-of-8 in the fourth quarter.
With McCollum, who shot 91.2 percent last season, and Lillard, the Blazers are second in the NBA (behind Utah) in free throws this season at 81.8 percent. The Blazers also attempt the third most per game (21.6) and rank 10th in clutch free throw shooting (82.4 percent), which is measured in the last five minutes.
“It’s not only Damian,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “I’ve been on teams where you have 5 good free-throw shooters out there and you know that down the stretch you can count on them to make their free throws. It’s a real advantage to have those kind of guys at the end of the game.’’
One of those teams was the 2010 Dallas Mavericks, when Stotts was an assistant. That team included Dirk Nowitizki, who made 82 in a row that season, the third longest streak in NBA history. Jose Calderon has the second longest streak, making 87 in a tow with Toronto in the 2008-2009 season.
Interestingly, Lillard says his free-throw streaks often go both ways. Last season, after he made 48 in a row, he lost his touch and went 18-for-28 (64.3 percent) over his next five games.
“In my career typically, I have long streaks where I make a bunch of free throws in a row, and when I miss, I have a five-game streak where I’m just missing,’’ Lillard said last March. “Then, I start another streak. But I shoot free throws all the time, so it’s not like it’s something I’m concerned about.’’
Tonight, the Blazers (6-4) play host to Memphis (6-4) in what figures to be another tough, grind-it-out game. If it is decided at the line, chances are Lillard will have something to do with it. He is 25-of-28 at the line in the fourth quarter this season, which includes 15 in a row. And as a team, the Blazers this season are 63-of-76 in the fourth quarter (82.9 percent).
Today's Blazers' links:
How to watch tonight's Blazers-Grizzlies game.
My Inside the Blazers podcast, with guest Maurice Harkless.
Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune writes that Lillard will become the best NBA player from Utah school.
The Beale Street Bears blog debates whether former Oregon wing Dillon Brooks will remain in Memphis rotation.