What’s the most exciting play in basketball? A posterizing dunk? A block swatted 10 rows into the stands? A sweet-swishing 3-pointer from downtown?
Chances are you didn’t say, “Consistent free-throw shooting.”
But the humble free throw had its moment Tuesday night in Miami when the Heat set an N.B.A. record, taking and making 40 free throws without a miss.
The Heat were led by an in-the-zone Jimmy Butler, who made 23 of 23 from the stripe. No other Miami player had more than six. Their opponents, the Oklahoma City Thunder, were comparative bricklayers, shooting 14 for 21.
Every one of those 40 Heat freebies was needed. Miami won, 112-111. The deciding point, which came with 12 seconds left, was, of course, a Butler free throw.
Butler ended with 35 points, yet needed only six field goals (on 17 shots) to reach that total.
The Heat broke a record that was held by two teams. The Utah Jazz shot 39 for 39 in 1982 (Danny Schayes was 14 for 14), tying a mark first set by the 1953 Fort Wayne Pistons (the Stuyvesant High School and Columbia University graduate and eventual convicted point shaver Jack Molinas was 11 for 11).
There have been a couple of close calls. In 2000, the Indiana Pacers were 40 for 41 (Jermaine O’Neal missed one). In 1950, the Washington Capitols were 44 for 45. Dick O’Keefe missed his only free throw, and the team folded before the season was over. Those two things were not related, probably.
In terms of free throws made, 40 is far from the record. That was set by the Phoenix Suns in 1990 when they shot 61 for 80. Though Suns fans were treated to a free-throw bonanza that night, the success rate was a pedestrian .763.
Before you dismiss the Heat’s feat on Tuesday, consider that free throws are far from gimmes. N.B.A. teams this season are making about 78 of every 100 free throws. But that still leaves 22 that miss.
In perhaps the worst team performance ever, the Detroit Pistons somehow shot 3 for 17 in a 2017 game (they were also 3 for 23 from 3-point range and lost to the Pelicans by 23). The expansion Toronto Raptors hold the “record,” with a .000 free-throw percentage in a game in 1996. But it comes with an asterisk: They were somehow awarded only three total free-throw attempts in the game.
The individual record 0-fer goes to the legendarily poor free-throw-shooting Shaquille O’Neal, who was 0 for 11 in a 2000 game with the Los Angeles Lakers. But worse still, perhaps, was Chris Dudley’s horrifying 1-for-18 effort in 1990 with the Nets. In a promotion between quarters, a blindfolded spectator made the same number of free throws as Dudley did all game.
As for Butler, his 23-for-23 mark on Tuesday was oh-so-close to the individual record. James Harden was 24 for 24 in December 2019. Adrian Dantley of the Jazz was an agonizing 28 for 29 in 1984.
Dantley is also near the top when it comes to total free throws made in a game. He had games with 26, 27 and 28 free throws made in the 1980s, although none of them were perfect. Bob Cousy was 30 for 31 in a 1953 four-overtime playoff game.
Dantley’s 28 tied the regular-season record, which was set by Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors, who made 28 of 32 free throws in a game in March 1962 game against the Knicks that was played in Hershey, Pa. The feat was scandalously overlooked at the time, as fans and journalists focused on some other statistic. Something about 100 points.