There are a lot of reasons the Suns were able to cling onto their lead last night. Devin Booker showed off with a series of dazzling mid-range jumpers en route to 30 points. Cameron Johnson turned in perhaps his best career performance to date. Ricky Rubio continues to act as a steadying, composed floor general. And Mikal Bridges played some terrific defense on Luka Doncic.
But how about this as a reason? The Suns shot 21-23 from the free throw line.
That’s 91%, and it’s their 3rd straight game of at least 90% FT shooting as a team. If the Suns had shot a more “average” 78% from the line last night, they would have scored 18 points from the charity stripe, not 21. And they would have lost the game 115-114, and their playoff hopes would have been smothered.
Free-throw shooting is as legitimate of a skill as any other in the NBA, but there seems to be an expectation on the part of fans that good FT percentages are simply a given. They absolutely aren’t, but it’s this line of thinking that leads good FT shooting to go unnoticed.
So unnoticed, in fact, that I bet you weren’t even aware of this trivia: the Suns are now shooting 83.0% as a team from the line, which is the 2nd highest FT% of any single season team in NBA history.
The 1989-1990 Boston Celtics hold the all-time record at 83.2%, but with six games remaining for the Suns, that record is within reach. All it would take is the Suns continuing to shoot in the mid-to-upper 80s or better in their remaining six games. It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly possible for them to make history in at least one way in the Bubble.
So who deserves credit? Well, the players do, of course! In the past year, Booker increased his FT% by 5% over last season, Bridges improved by 3%, and Ayton by 2%. Then add steady veterans like Rubio and Saric who both shoot close to 85% over their careers, and you have a winning formula.
But additionally, Monty Williams deserves some credit here for the way that he has gotten this team to buy into the fundamentals of basketball. When Igor Kokoskov coached the Suns there was plenty of talk about fundamentals, but little execution. While Monty indisputably has much better personnel to work with, the fact that he came in and got his team to lead the league in both Assists and FT% in year one shows a true commitment to playing the game “the right way”.
For now, the Suns are still alive. It’ll take a miracle for them to make the playoffs, but knowing that they won’t crack under pressure so easily from the free-throw line instills confidence that they could be building something special.