- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

A free throw attempt is an awful thing to waste, as the Wizards discovered in their last two meetings with the Magic.

There is Brendan Haywood with a free throw attempt that hits nothing but net, literally, a shot that travels only 14 of the required 15 feet. He misses his second attempt as well, and the Wizards are soon en route to their second defeat in as many nights against the Magic, and both because of the unfashionable but ever-important skill of free throw shooting.

The loss on Friday night was the most discouraging because the meltdown involved the usually reliable Gilbert Arenas, who ended up missing five of his last seven free throw attempts in the final 2:02 after making his first 11.

The flow of both games favored the Wizards, as they seemingly wrested control of each in the late going, only to fritter away their good work at the free throw line. This two-game swing stung the Wizards, no doubt, because they surrendered what was rightfully theirs.

These are the games they have been winning all season. The late going of a game is where they have shown their most growth this season, and perhaps have become overly dependent on it. This time, though, erratic free throw shooting stymied the customary antidote of the Fun Street Bunch.

Free throw shooting, alas, is one of the least appreciated elements of the game. This is not to suggest that coaches do not shout its importance. Coaches are forever emphasizing the value of free throw shooting and how it routinely can account for one-third of a team’s production on offense.

Yet all across America today, all too many future NBA players are perfecting their dunks instead of their form on the free throw line. Teens emphasize that which elicits the oohs and ahs from a crowd, such as the monster slam of Steve Francis in the second half. That maneuver sent a buzz through the sold-out arena, momentarily blunting the homecourt advantage of the Wizards.

But like it or not, the dunk by Francis led to no style points on the scoreboard, just the basic notching of two.

In the end, the Wizards could have overcome their poor shooting from the field and the big shots of Francis and Grant Hill if only they had not gone 31-for-45 from the free throw line.

No player symbolizes the team’s recent charity-stripe frustrations more than Etan Thomas, the burly forward who has returned from his injury with the touch of a mason. Thomas never has had a soft shooting touch. But he is mining some new and dark territory in the 11 games since his return. He has descended into the company of Chris Dudley and Olden Polynice, two past bricklayers extraordinaire who were painful to watch whenever they went to the free throw line.

These guys were so bad at times they actually made Shaq look almost efficient. In Polynice’s last season with the Jazz, soon after he became a self-appointed police officer of Salt Lake City, he shot an unthinkable .262 from the free throw line.

Thomas, for now, is at a groan-inducing .333, which effectively blunts much of his hard work on the offensive glass. The best measure is to stick him on the line instead of allowing a put-back.

The Wizards have achieved one dimension of the free throw equation, which is earning the respect of officials and getting to the line. The Wizards are averaging more than four free throw attempts more than their opponents this season, which is no small advantage in a league in which so much of the night’s effort is determined in the last four minutes.

Yet the Wizards, at least in the last two games, neglected to complete the most perfunctory assignment, and it cost them dearly. They gift-wrapped two games to the Magic.

In a season as long as the NBA’s, you are bound to see the unusual, whether it is Arenas being Miniature Shaq one night or Haywood sucking the air out of the arena with an air ball from the free throw line.

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