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Game 3 between the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder seems so long ago now, doesn't it? Winning was a group effort, but one of the stretches that swung the game came at the free-throw line. With the Thunder in desperate need of stops, coach Mark Daigneault decided to play the percentages. He started hacking rookie center Dereck Lively II figuring that a 50.6% free-throw shooter would produce less points at the line than the Dallas offense, with two superstars, a bevy of shooters and 15 offensive rebounds for the game, could muster down the stretch of the fourth quarter. 

That gamble backfired. Lively shot 8-of-12. Dallas won by four. Were it not for Lively over-performing at the line, the Mavericks might have lost. We have to note that Lively over-performed not only because of his own numbers, but because of how Dallas handled their freebies all season. The Mavericks ranked 27th in the NBA by making 75.8% of them in the regular season. They were the worst free-throw shooting team of the playoffs entering Monday's Game 4 as well at 71%.

And, sure enough, those free-throw woes came back to bite the Mavericks yet again in a 100-96 defeat, but this time, they were worse than ever. Not just for Dallas, but for all NBA history. In Game 4, the Mavericks shot 12-of-23 at the foul line. That's a free-throw percentage of 52.2%. The Thunder, meanwhile, shot 23-of-24, or 95.8%. According to Stathead, that makes Game 4 just the fifth playoff game in NBA history in which one team shot 55% or worse at the line while the other shot 95% or better. 

Here's the rub: this was the first time in NBA history in which both of those teams attempted at least 20 free-throws. If you look at those other four games, you could also make a real argument that the Mavericks just had the most consequential collapse at the line we've ever seen for such a game. Here are the four other games that meet the criteria covered:

  • The 2023 Celtics lost a playoff game against the Hawks, 119-117, in which they shot 7-of-13 at the line while Atlanta shot 10-of-10. However, the Celtics had a 3-1 lead entering that game and were heavily favored in the series. They went on to close it out in Game 6.
  • The 2014 Spurs actually won a playoff game over the Trail Blazers despite shooting 6-of-14 from the line while Portland hit all 10 of its attempts. The free-throw issues obviously didn't matter as the Spurs won the game.
  • The real competition for the Mavericks here comes from the 2001 Raptors. They shot 7-of-13 from the line in a Game 2 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, who shot 25-of-26. However, Toronto had already swiped home-court advantage from the 76ers in Game 1, so the defeat didn't feel quite as crushing. Besides, their issue had less to do with missing free throws and more to do with not generating enough of them.
  • The 1997 Heat lost a game to the Magic in which they shot 9-of-18 at the line while Orlando hit 22 of its 23 attempts. The margin in the game was the exact margin at the line, as Orlando won by 13, but once you've lost by double digits, it's hard to blame the outcome on any single factor.

The Mavericks, obviously, did not lose by double digits. There was not some enormous margin of attempts, either, and the game itself was incredibly close, and the four-point margin of victory for Oklahoma City doesn't quite do that justice. Luka Doncic had a chance to tie the game at the line with 10 seconds remaining and couldn't. This game, more than maybe any other playoff game in NBA history, came down to one team maximizing its attempts at the line and the other botching their own, similar number of tries.

The consequences here for Dallas are significant. Had the Mavericks won, they would have taken a 3-1 advantage in the series. There have been 285 3-1 series leads in NBA history, and the trailing team has come back only 13 times. Instead, the Mavericks surrendered home-court advantage in the series back to the Thunder, who went 33-8 in their own building during the regular season. Dallas went from prohibitive favorites in the series to underdogs because of their dismal performance at the line.

"We got to do better," coach Jason Kidd said after Game 4. "We can't shoot 50 percent if we want to win. We'll talk about it tomorrow and we'll get better and we'll have another opportunity on Wednesday."

They'd better hope they get better, because the Thunder were an elite free-throw shooting team even before Monday's showcase. They ranked third in the NBA by making 82.5% of their attempts at the line during the regular season. Even if Game 4 was a historic outlier, these are two teams on opposite ends of the free-throw shooting spectrum, and in a series this tight, that might ultimately wind up making the difference.