Blazers make what is free, and top the league while doing so

TUALATIN, Ore. — Several topics have dominated the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2009-10 season thus far.

The addition of veteran point guard Andre Miller; the continued emergence of center Greg Oden; major injuries to forwards Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw; and star guard Brandon Roy’s reported need for the ball.

But lost in all the truth and drama is one significant statistic that has played a key part in the Blazers’ early success. And it could take on an even larger role as Portland (11-5) climbs the ladder in the attempt to reach the top tier of the NBA.

The stat: free throws.

Heading into Tuesday night’s slate of games, the Blazers led the league in free-throw shooting. Portland’s 80.6 percent accuracy from the line edged out Oklahoma City (80.4 percent) and Denver (80.3). The Blazers also ranked fourth in the NBA in average free throws made (21.3) and 10th in attempts (26.4).

“That’s big. That’s huge,” Portland coach Nate McMillan said, following a workout Tuesday morning at the team’s practice facility. “It’s always been a fact that you’ve got to be able to make your free throws. And if you don’t, you don’t win.”

The Blazers’ consistent ability this season to take and make free throws may not be as intriguing as the rise of Oden; not as dramatic as the loss of Batum and Outlaw; and not as sexy as the drama surrounding Miller and Roy.

But McMillan said a concerted effort among Portland’s players and coaches has impacted the team’s fortune at the line, while also giving the Blazers a new edge. And the insertion of Oden (79.1) and Martell Webster (79.4) into Portland’s starting lineup has presented opponents with a pick-your-poison dilemma, now that all five of the team’s starters are shooting at least 79 percent from the line.

“It becomes an issue where you can’t stop them; there’s no way of guarding,” McMillan said. “When you have a guy that can make free throws … then it basically becomes, you just hope that they miss.”

And the Blazers have not missed often this season. Among Portland starters, Blake’s 88.2 percent accuracy from the line is tops. But LaMarcus Aldridge (82.0) and Roy (79.8) are not far behind.

And it is not just a single player inflating the Blazers’ league-leading percentage.

Portland’s top free-throw shooter is Miller, whose 83.0 percentage ranks 47th in the NBA. However, every player on the team’s roster is hitting at least 70 percent of their foul shots.

Roy said the first mark of premier teams is their ability to get to the line. The next step is cashing in the reward.

“We’ve got to continue to attack the basket,” Roy said. “Because that’s going to be the difference in big games.”

It was a difference Monday, when the Blazers knocked off the Chicago Bulls, 122-98, at the Rose Garden.

In the past, McMillan has referred to 24 as being the ideal amount of free throws he wants Portland to attempt per game. The Blazers took 40 in their win over the Bulls, making 32. And Portland’s success at the line was best captured by Oden, who hit 10 of his 12 attempts on his way to tying a career high with 24 points.

“It’s great to be able to finish with Greg,” Roys said. “Because he can make free throws down the stretch.”

Ironically, two missed free throws by Oden with 4 seconds left on the clock contributed to the Blazers’ 97-94 home loss to the Denver Nuggets on Oct. 29. But those misses were an anomaly. As the season has unfolded, Oden has shown off an impressive, soft touch. His 64.0 percent shooting from the field leads the NBA. And he has improved his foul shooting by more than 15 percent, when compared to last season (63.7).

As a result, Portland’s power duo of Oden and Aldridge are becoming increasingly dangerous. Aldridge is a threat from the perimeter and on the block, while Oden has added a jump hook and short turnaround shot to his game. And now that both are in the starting lineup — and making teams consistently pay when they are fouled — the Blazers have added yet another hard-to-beat piece to their impresssive puzzle.

“It makes a big difference,” Aldridge said. “It makes them less likely to foul you. It makes your plays worthwhile, basically. When you keep getting fouled — if you’re making free throws — then you’re going to run the same play. … It makes us more confident in running the same plays, and it makes us more fluid.”

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