For the past few years, many of the Warriors’ defensive issues have bubbled to the surface most when they struggle to defend without fouling. That trend materialized once again on Saturday night, when Golden State lost a grueling double-overtime game to LeBron James and the Lakers.
In that defeat, the Warriors shot 16 free throws compared to Los Angeles’ 43. Head coach Steve Kerr, who has expressed frustration with officiating at various times this season, wasn’t thrilled with the disparity.
“I might comment on the free throws but my mom is here so I want to be on my best behavior,” Kerr said after the Lakers game. “So I’m not going to comment on their 43 free throws to our 16. I’m not going to comment on Steph (Curry) shooting three free throws in 43 minutes.”
Golden State ranks 27th in opponent free throws per game, an area of weakness that could be exposed on Tuesday night in the Chase Center when Joel Embiid and the 76ers roll into town. Embiid, a leading MVP candidate, is among the best players at getting to the line. The 7-footer is known to sell calls and bait officials, but also plays a rugged style that could be difficult for the Warriors (19-24) to match up with as they try to turn their season around.
Embiid is averaging a league-best 36 points per game. He missed Philadelphia’s last game with a knee injury and will also sit out Monday night’s game in Portland, but could wreak havoc from the foul line if he suits up against Golden State.
On a per-minute basis, nobody gets to the line more frequently than Embiid, who’s attempting a career-high 10.7 foul shots per game. Only Jimmy Butler scores more of his points at the free throw line than Embiid; 29.8 percent of Embiid’s points have come on free throws. He’s not alone, either. The Sixers lead the league in both free throws made and attempted, with point guard Tyrese Maxey also in the top 25 in total foul shots. Maxey’s 242 total free throws equal Jimmy Butler’s output and are more than James’.
Point-of-attack defense, in addition to interior against Embiid, will be crucial for the Warriors, who have struggled to limit freebies.
They aren’t alone in that: Free throw attempts are at their highest level since the 2010-11 season league-wide. Curry, after the Lakers game, pleaded for consistency from the officials.
“It’s interesting how the game is refereed,” Curry said. “You saw it a little tonight. It’s hard to be as physical as you want, with some of the patterns of how things are called. And guys are taking advantage of it. If you can score at all three levels and get to the foul line, you’re going to have a night. I think it’s great for the league in the sense of showcasing skill sets, in the variety of how guys score, but there’s some stuff to correct as well.”
Embiid is included in the class of players taking advantage of more whistles. When Embiid dropped a franchise-record 70 points last week against the Spurs, he went 21-for-23 at the free-throw line. The magnificent performance set off a league-wide individual scoring explosion highlighted by Karl Anthony-Towns (62 points in a loss), Devin Booker (46 points, 62 points and 44 points in a row) and Luka Doncic (73 points in Atlanta).
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In the wake of those scoring binges, some within the league — including Kerr — have advocated for rule changes designed to tilt the equilibrium back toward defense.
“I wish I could tell you the number of times a player wildly drove into us, ran into us, and I went to the ref and the ref used the expression, ‘illegal guarding position,’” Kerr said. “The way we’re interpreting the rules is favoring the offense. Just as we did 20 years ago as a league, when we wanted to open up the game, we changed the interpretation. So we could easily go back and give leeway to the defense.”
Free-throw attempts are at their highest level since the 2010-11 season, and rule changes could very well be on the horizon. But they won’t arrive before Tuesday night, so the Warriors will have no choice but to limit the Sixers’ trips to the line.