Downhill shooter: Duncan once again fragile and frozen at the stripe
Tim Duncan shot .725 from the stripe this season, a little better than his adequate-for-a-center career mark of .687. But he has always looked vulnerable, as if he were one bad miss from starting another horrid streak, banging line-drive low fades off the front rim and, occasionally, off the back.
Well, the playoffs are here and once more he’s gone cold. The Spurs survived his 17 for 35 performance vs. the Mavs, including 1 for 7 in Thursday night’s clincher. I think he can stink up the joint in the second round and survive, but he’ll need to shoot well at the stripe to lead the Spurs to victory over the likely Western Conference Finals opponent, the Lakers.
Duncan isn’t tall enough to shoot a “downhill” free throw to a ten-foot high basket, but he comes mighty close. That leaves little margin for error, which tends to magnify little flaws that can creep in. A few misses and he starts to press, which in his case means focusing more intently, which adds to the tension in his body, which leads to even less fluidity and arc, which leads to more misses.
I can’t imagine him and the Spurs attempting a makeover at this critical juncture; more than likely, they’ll do what they’ve done in the past: hope the slump will vanish as mysteriously as it arrived.
His career .687 mark has not been characterized by consistent mediocrity; rather, he’s been on one long free-throw roller coaster. The main reason is that his approach to this unguarded 15-foot shot is in conflict with his very essence. Duncan is a laid-back, casually attired, easy-going, graceful, highly coordinated native of the Virgin Islands. The one and only season (2001-02) where he had a routine and delivery befitting such a man he shot .799 in the regular season and .822 in the playoffs — both career highs.
As I've pointed out to various Spurs staffers (to no avail), that routine had a rhythm and a flow — qualities that have rarely appeared in the various deliveries he has since employed. For the last several years he has opted for a five-second staring contest with the rim, followed by an abrupt lifting of his dangling arms into a quick, single-motion shot. It’s unpleasant to watch even when it’s working, as it did this season prior to the All-Star break. (He shot .750 before and .667 after.)
Maybe he’ll recapture his early season stare-and-fling groove. For the long haul, however, he’d be better off if his slump continued, for it just might make him face the music. Or better yet, listen to it. Something lilting; you know, with rhythm and flow.