NBA

Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo has shortened his free throw routine in NBA Finals, and it’s paying off big time

Ask any team that has played against the Milwaukee Bucks in the postseason: The concept of the 10-second violation is a myth. There is no shot clock on the backboard that buzzes to enforce it. Responsibility for doing so falls strictly on the officials, and they do so at their leisure. Giannis Antetokounmpo has committed dozens of violations this postseason. He’s been called for only two of them.

Yet you could make a compelling case for the idea that those two whistles have demonstrably impacted Antetokounmpo at the line this postseason. He is shooting only 57.1 percent on free throws in the playoffs, his lowest mark since the 2016-17 season. That’s a significant decline from the 68.5 percent mark he reached in the regular season, and most of it came in the first two rounds of the playoffs, when he shot only 53.8 percent at the line. Those were the two series in which he was called for those violations. In the Brooklyn Nets series specifically, he struggled to make his free throws on the road, going 14 of 31 in Brooklyn. That carried over into Eastern Conference finals, as he shot 6 of 16 in Atlanta, but since the NBA Finals began, things have steadily improved for the two-time MVP.

Antetokounmpo hit seven of his 12 attempts in Game 1, right in line with his overall postseason percentage. Then he shot 11 of 18 in Game 2, a bit better, but nothing to write home about. Finally, this culminated in a 13-for-17 performance in Game 3 that represented the most free throws he’s made in a 2021 playoff game and was the second-highest percentage he shot at the line in the postseason, trailing only a 6-for-7 outing in Game 2 of the first round against the Miami Heat.

So what changed? While correlation does not necessarily equal causation, the obvious answer is that Giannis has slowly but surely trimmed seconds off his routine at the line. Measuring the length of that routine after the fact is an inexact science. Doing so on some shots simply isn’t possible because the television cameras aren’t focused on Antetokounmpo when he receives the ball. But using timestamps from Synergy Sports’ full-game video log, I tracked how long it took Antetokounmpo to get his shots up in four separate postseason games. 

We’ll start with Game 4 of the second round against the Nets to set a baseline of where Giannis was at his slowest point: 

1

13.1

Q2, 6:24

Miss

2

13

Q2, 0:49.8

Make

3

11.2

Q3, 10:56

Miss

4

Unclear

Q3, 10:56

Make

5

12.9

Q3, 4:36

Make

6

12.5

Q3, 4:36

Miss

7

12.8

Q4, 9:36

Miss

8

Unclear

Q4, 9:36

Make

9

Unclear

Q4, 8:33

Miss

10

12

Q4, 8:33

Make

Every single chartable free throw Antetokounmpo took in this game should technically have constituted a 10-second violation. On average, in the attempts that could be counted, Antetokounmpo used an average of 12.5 seconds per free throw. He made half of the 10 that he took. 

Game 3 against the Atlanta Hawks was fairly similar as he shot 6 of 13 from the line. 

1

11.4

Q1, 6:17

Miss

2

10.3

Q1, 6:17

Miss

3

10.5 

Q1, 2:22

Make

4

10.1

Q1, 2:22

Make

5

10.7

Q1, 1:23

Make

6

11.1

Q1, 1:23

Miss

7

10.8

Q2, 6:00

Make

8

10.6

Q2, 3:33

Miss

9

Unclear

Q2, 3:33

Miss

10

11.4

Q3, 0:23.9

Miss

11

9.9

Q3, 0:29.3

Make

12

10.4

Q4, 1:32

Miss

13

Unclear

Q4, 1:32

Make

The timing starts to look a bit better in the Atlanta series, but he’s still committing 10-second violations frequently. On average, he used 10.65 seconds per attempt. That’s a substantial decline, but he hasn’t yet seen the fruits of that effort. 

He started to a bit in Game 1 of the Finals against the Phoenix Suns, when he shot 7 of 12 from the line. 

1

10.5

Q1, 11:44

Miss

2

10.7

Q1, 11:44

Make

3

10.9

Q1, 8:13

Miss

4

8.8 

Q1, 8:13

Make

5

9.2

Q4, 8:58

Make

6

8.7

Q4, 8:58

Make

7

Unclear

Q4, 3:26

Miss

8

Unclear

Q4, 3:26

Make

9

9.3

Q4, 2:56

Miss

10

7.8

Q4, 2:56

Make

11

9.6

Q4, 1:35

Miss

12

Unclear

Q4, 1:35

Make

Game 1 was a breakthrough on several levels. It was the first game we’ve examined in which the average length of his routine would not be cause for a violation at 9.5 seconds, and after his first three attempts, he stayed below the line on his next six chartable shots. 

Finally, that shorter routine paid off in full in Game 3 with his 13-of-17 night. 

1

Unclear

Q1, 8:43

Make

2

9.8

Q1, 4:22

Make

3

9.3

Q1, 4:22

Make

4

9.8

Q1, 0:15.6

Miss

5

9.1

Q1, 0:15.6

Miss

6

Unclear

Q2, 6:20

Make

7

10.4

Q3, 10:25

Make

8

9.8

Q3, 10:25

Miss

9

9.4

Q3, 9:04

Make

10

Unclear

Q3, 9:04

Make

11

9.7

Q3, 2:37

Make

12

9.4

Q3, 2:37

Make

13

8

Q3, 0:56.8

Make

14

10.9

Q3, 0:33.4

Make

15

Unclear

Q3, 0:33.4

Make

16

10.1

Q4, 11:46

Make

17

8.2

Q4, 11:46

Miss

The real question now becomes, what did Antetokounmpo change in order to shave all of these seconds? Well, no two free throws are alike, but a common thread of his Game 3 attempts was how quickly he got into his routine. Antetokounmpo typically takes six or seven dribbles after getting the ball before putting up his shot. The gap between that last dribble and the shot itself usually lasts around three seconds, but in the Finals, he’s been far more diligent about starting his dribbles as soon as he gets the ball. Just compare this Game 3 free throw to one from Game 4 of the Brooklyn series: 

Overall, in the measurable shots in these four games, Giannis spent roughly 11.3 seconds on his misses and 10.1 seconds on his makes (though the numbers within individual games are closer). Now, it must be stressed once again that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Not only is this a tiny sample, but it was one picked across four fairly random games. A different sampling of four games might have yielded different results. Antetokounmpo might simply have gotten hot in Game 3. There might have been some other unknown variable affecting him early in the playoffs. 

But Giannis has clearly tinkered with his routine intentionally to some degree. Whether they will sustain or not, those tweaks have thus far yielded positive results. After several rounds of opponents complaining about his lengthy routine, the Suns would probably now prefer Antetokounmpo to take his sweet time.



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