WASHINGTON -- Basketball is a game of inches. One inch to the left or the right can mean the difference between a game-changing make and a groan-inducing miss. The Washington Wizards were reminded of this yet again as they lost another close game, falling to the Golden State Warriors, 101-97.
Coach Randy Wittman, in his post-game remarks, blamed the team's poor free throw shooting, stating "We get to the line and we give nine away there." The team made only 14 of their 23 free throws (61 percent) in their loss.
A 63 percent shooter from the charity stripe for his career, combo forward Chris Singleton went to the line for two free throws with the Wizards down 84-83 and 4:14 left in the game. Singleton split the pair, failing to give the Wizards the lead. Asked about his and the team's struggles from the line, he said that it was largely a mental issue, adding, "We just got to concentrate more and make them."
This lapse in concentration more likely than not doesn't exist in a vacuum, and could be a partial result of the team's numerous defeats in close games this year. Psychologists have long since known that increased pressure tends to result in a decline in performance. Arizona State University's Brian P. Lewis and Darwyn E. Linder wrote in a 1997 paper on choking that, "... pressure distracts attention from the task, and self focus, wherein attention shifts inward interfering with performance." Essentially, an athlete in a high pressure situation such as a late game trip to the free-throw line is more likely to fail because they're making so great an effort not to.
No one on the Wizards has more pressure on him to not fail right now than Bradley Beal. The third pick in the draft's short NBA career has already been something of a minor nightmare, as his outside shot has failed him and his team has gotten off to an embarrassingly bad 2-15 start. Beal finished the night with a nice-looking statline of 17 points, six rebounds and six assists, but shot only 6-17 from the floor and 4-6 from the line.
Two of those free throws came with four seconds left and the Wizards down by three. Beal stepped to the line in one of the most nerve-wracking situations a player can be in: for his team to win, he needed to make the first free throw, miss the second, get the rebound, and either make a layup or get fouled. He made the first, missed the second, got the rebound ... and had his desperation shot blocked by Festus Ezeli, sealing the Wizards' fate.
After the game, a disappointed Beal spoke about his attempt to get his own rebound and putback on the second free throw.
"Everybody was like, 'Miss it! Miss it!' and I was like, 'O.K.' ... I missed the second one and it was kind of a lane violation on me, and I was kind of hesitant to go in, but the fall fell in my hands and I just missed the lay up."
The hesitancy Beal spoke of could very well have cost Washington the game. Had he been on the winning end of a few more close games, it's possible, maybe even likely, that he wouldn't have hesitated, that he'd have made a kamikaze dive for the ball and made the putback without even thinking. Beal's layup was just barely blocked, with Ezeli only getting a finger on it. If the ball had been an inch higher in the air when the shot was contested, it could very well have gone in unimpeded.
There's a case to be made that the Wizards' repeated setbacks are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which defeat begets defeat. However, it's important to keep perspective and avoid attributing the team's loss to poor free throw shooting as Wittman did. One of the most interesting things about the basketball, at least from a statistical perspective, is the large sample size each game provides. Each contest provides roughly one hundred possessions in which just the slightest alteration in the ball's trajectory can mean the difference between a made basket and a miss. Sometimes a team will get a little lucky and those 50/50 balls will go their way. Other times they won't. It happens. Just as the Wizards could have gotten a little bit luckier at the line, the Warriors could have gotten a little bit luckier from behind the arc, where Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson both missed a couple of three pointers that they'd normally make.
Washington didn't lose because they missed shots. They lost because they were afraid they'd miss shots. Until the team wins a few close games and gains some confidence, they're likely to continue to lose.