For the aggressive Oklahoma City Thunder, foul play is a concern

For the aggressive Oklahoma City Thunder, foul play is a concern

Why can’t the Thunder stop fouling? It’s a point of emphasis as its opponents march to the free-throw line.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 15, 2024, 10:00am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 15, 2024, 10:00am CST

(This story originally appeared in the This Week in Thunder with Brett Dawson newsletter. Subscribe here)

OKLAHOMA CITY — At last check, the foul lines at Paycom Center seemed fine. 

There was no paint flaking, no fading. No visible footprints from Thunder opponents toeing the free-throw line. 

But you’d have reason to believe otherwise.

Through 38 games, Oklahoma City is sending its opponents to the free-throw line for 25.2 attempts per game. Entering this week, only three teams — the Pacers, Pistons and Rockets — allowed more free-throw attempts on average. 

During a nine-game stretch from Dec. 26-Jan. 10, OKC opponents averaged 28.9 free-throw attempts per game. Over that span, opponents outscored the Thunder by an average of eight points per game at the foul line. 

After the Wizards hit 25 of 29 free throws in a 136-128 loss to the Thunder last week in Washington, D.C., Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma told reporters “Playing OKC, they’re a team that (has) a lot of great length and good defenders, but they foul a lot. So we took advantage of that.”

The Thunder, which plays the Lakers tonight in Los Angeles (9:30 p.m., Bally Sports) commits 20.1 fouls per game. That ranked 20th in the NBA entering the week. The number of fouls is less an issue than the number of opponent free-throw attempts. 

But there also is an expectation, coach Mark Daigneault said, that OKC is unlikely to lead the league in the fewest free-throw attempts allowed. 

“I think there’s tradeoffs, first of all, of being feisty, help-oriented,” Daigneault said. “We want teams playing in a crowd, and the more bodies you put around the ball, the more there’s an exposure risk to fouling.”

At the same time, Daigneault said, “We’ve fouled too much.”

It’s a fine line, and at times the Thunder has balanced it deftly. 

During a seven-game stretch from Dec. 8-23, OKC allowed 20.7 free-throw attempts per game. For context, the Celtics this season have allowed a league-low 19.9 free-throw attempts per game. 

In the past two games, the Thunder has allowed 40 total free-throw attempts, a number boosted by a 139-77 win last Thursday over Portland, which got to the line 16 times. 

When attempts are low, Daigneault said, it’s less the result of any specific emphasis and more the product of a season-long point of focus. The Thunder has been talking all year about fouling less. 

One key, guard Cason Wallace said, is “showing your hands” to the officials — keeping them high when you’re defending the ball to make clear that you’re legally guarding. 

“We get caught putting our hands in there and people sweeping (the ball) through and getting the foul calls on us,” Wallace said. “So that’s something that we’ve been emphasizing.”

But the emphasis comes with a caveat. 

The Thunder wants to foul less without losing aggressiveness. 

Daigneault pointed to an example of Wallace fouling a jump shooter, noting that it was a foul OKC didn’t want to take while also conceding “We like when he blocks the jump shot.”

“It’s a needle to thread,” Daigneault said. 

Though the Thunder is the league’s second-youngest team, Daigneault shrugged off the suggestion that there are issues of experience — or physical maturity — that are plaguing his team on the foul front. 

It’s a matter of focus. And on the right kinds of fouls. 

“We certainly don’t want to give points away,” Daigneault said. “I’d say that’s been an emphasis all year. It’s not a new thing for us. We want to give fouls with physicality, but some of this off-ball stuff that we’re picking up that’s getting us closer to the bonus or stabs in our help where we’re reaching down on a gathered ball, that stuff we’ve been addressing all along.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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