In the last minute of a game, ⅔ of all points scored come from free throws. I’ll repeat that one more time. In the last minute of a game, ⅔ of all points scored come from free throws!
The importance of free throws can’t be overstated. When the game is on the line, free throw shooting is often the difference between winning and losing.
If you need more proof, just look back at John Calipari’s 2008 Memphis team with Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts. Leading Kansas by 9 with 2:12 remaining, Memphis looked to be cruising toward the NCAA title. But Rose and Douglas-Roberts went 1 for 5 from the line in the final minutes, letting Kansas back into the game. Then, of course, Mario Chalmers hit that memorable 3 and Kansas pulled out the victory in overtime.
Check out the way Chris Douglas Roberts and Derrick Rose back away from the line when they shoot these free throws.
Shooting clutch free throws is a completely different animal, but players rarely do a good job of preparing themselves for the unique pressures of late game free throw shooting.
Here are 5 tips to make your free throw practice more effective and translatable to clutch situations.
1) Shoot with something at stake
Any player who has been to the line in a tight game knows that every free throw has an enormous amount of pressure. Just practicing a bunch of free throws isn’t enough. There needs to be something significant at stake. For example, running or burpees is always a great motivator.
When you train in the offseason, set a non-negotiable rule that you have to run a suicide or do 20 burpees every time you miss a free throw. Even that little bit of pressure can better simulate an end-of-game situation.
2) Shoot 2 at a time (or 1 and 1)
I’ve never understood why players don’t practice shooting free throws in a 1 and 1 situation or 2 at a time. While shooting 50 free throws in a row is great for muscle memory, it doesn’t accurately simulate a game situation.
It’s important to factor this into your training. For example, after each drill, go to the line and simulate a 1 and 1. If you miss the front end, you have to repeat the drill. If you make the first and miss the second, you have to repeat half of the drill. Not only does this put pressure on you, but it addresses the reality of shooting 2 free throws at a time.
3) Shoot when you’re tired
In the 4th quarter, when you’re shooting the most important free throws, you’re rarely fresh. So why only practice free throws when you’re feeling good?
Make sure to practice free throws when you’re winded and your legs are tired. I like to do this by shooting free throws directly after each drill. Don’t get water first or take a break. Go immediately to the line as if you just got fouled. That way, you can practice when your physical and mental conditioning is being tested.
4) Hold yourself accountable
Don’t take practice free throws lightly. Hold yourself accountable for every shot you take. If you’ve agreed to a punishment for each miss, don’t brush it off. Weak-mindedness is a virus that will multiply if you don’t destroy it. Be mentally strong and hold yourself accountable for your actions at the free throw line.
5) Use your imagination
Every time you step to the line, picture the most hostile situation you can imagine. Envision screaming fans yelling profanities, opposing players talking trash, even referees who want you to miss (trust me, that can happen). Then, step to the line, go through your routine, swish the free throw and imagine silencing the crowd. Experience that feeling of success that you are mentally strong enough to deal with anything thrown at you.
If you shoot every free throw this way, I guarantee that when the time comes to hit a clutch free throw on the road, you’ll be ready for it.
I’d love to hear your stories about games where free throws decided the outcome. Do you think any of these techniques will help you?