There was a collective sigh from a few Boston Celtics fans sitting behind me when Rajon Rondo walked up to the free throw line, tied 102-102, with 1:04 left in Friday's game versus the Chicago Bulls.
Their groans sounded as if they knew Rondo was going to miss his two attempts.
They were right; Rondo clanked both of his tries off the back right side of the rim.
"It's very frustrating, in particular this game," Rondo said after the 109-102 loss. "If I make my free throws, I think we win the game."
There are no guarantees the Celtics would've won the game had Rondo come through, but it would've helped.
According to Inpredictable.com's NBA Win Probability Calculator, Boston had a 43.2 percent chance to win after Rondo's two bricks, but would've had a 57.7 percent or 70.4 percent chance, had he hit one or both attempts, respectively.
At the least, his misses illustrate the importance of hitting free throws. More worrisome, Rondo's horrifying season from the charity stripe has continued.
I'd be less anxious about taking a shower in Bates Motel than I am with Rajon Rondo shooting free throws with the game on the line.
So...what's Rondo's problem?
Entering the 2014 season, he was a career 62.7 percent foul shooter, playoffs included, and now that number has dropped to 62.2. On the year, he's just 32.1 percent, or 13-of-28, a career-low mark.
"I don't have a clue, really, still trying to figure it out," a baffled Rondo explained of his difficulties at the line. "I continue to work on my game and especially get some more free throws up."
But here's the thing: Rondo does have a clue, and he knows exactly what's wrong. If you gave every player in the league an IQ test, Rondo would be in the top percentile, and if you gave him a basketball-only IQ test, he'd probably be the NBA's valedictorian.
Rondo knows his form is awful, he knows he keeps his elbow out, and he knows he has inconsistent footwork. The star point guard is just too smart for his own good.
Last season I wanted to know the core problem with Rondo's free throws, so I looked in-depth at his routine, form, and his stats from the free throw line.
I found that Rondo's routine has changed every year of his career, which hasn't allowed him to develop a rhythm, but that wasn't the most interesting discovery.
Rondo has progressively improved as a foul shooter over the course of his career, but only on his second (or third) attempts from the free throw line.
Through Rondo's career, he is a 56.5 percent foul shooter on his first free throw attempt, but 68.9 percent on subsequent attempts. But in the past two seasons, he is just 51.1 percent on his first attempt and an above average 79.2 percent on subsequent attempts.
Here is the "short version" of Rondo's stats, but if you'd like to see them all, please click here to read last season's full article:
|Rajon Rondo Career Free Throw Data - 1st Versus 2nd Attempt Difference|
|Year||FT1%||FT2% or FT3%||Total FT%||DIFFERENCE|
|First 6 years||57.3%||68.8%||62.6%||11.5%|
|Past 2 years||51.1%||79.2%||63.8%||28.0%|
|NBA and College||56.7%||67.7%||61.7%||11.0%|
As the chart shows, Rondo has gotten slightly worse on his first attempt, but significantly better on his second. I hypothesized that he probably needed the first shot as a "warm-up," so the second one came more naturally to him; essentially, he found his rhythm.
But in a radio interview earlier this month, Celtics president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, hinted that the issues are in Rondo's head.
"Rondo has been there late at night working on free throws. It's something, as a coach, you can't talk too much about because it's more of a psychological thing for Rondo," Ainge told 98.5 The Sports Hub's Toucher & Rich. "I'm not concerned about it. It's early in the season. I think he's just been in a free throw funk."
Rondo is shooting 46.7 percent on his first free throw attempt, which isn't much worse than last year, but his 15.4 percent on his following attempt is the anchor weighing him down.
What it boils down to is the fact that Rondo needs a sports psychologist. He's in the ninth year of his career and yet his best season from the line came as a rookie, at a measly 64.7 percent.
Plenty of players have drastically performed as free throw shooters in their careers, but there is no better story than Karl Malone's.
Malone shot 54.8 percent from the line in the first two years of his Hall of Fame career, but 75.7 percent for the rest of it. Malone realized his struggles and went to a sports psychologist who taught him to use a "trigger word."
More on Free Throws
More on Free Throws
This trigger word taught Malone how to stop thinking so much and to stay calm. Think about it as free throw line yoga for basketball players. A trigger word is what it sounds like; you integrate a word you whisper to yourself as a part of your free throw routine, no differently than how players dribble the ball X amount of times before shooting.
At the same time, Rondo shouldn't be thinking about "nothing," because he needs to be focused on keeping his mechanics consistent, but he definitely can't be thinking of "everything," which is obviously what's going on now.
Rondo is probably thinking about making the free throw, the score, the next play, and every single mechanical problem with his shot and release. When he's in practice, he doesn't put the pressure on himself, but when he's playing in live game action, he builds an impenetrable psychological wall.
In order to take down those walls, Rondo must think about one mechanical aspect of his shot, perhaps "hand through the rim," and since it may take a trigger word to get him into that Zen mode, more hours of psychological evaluation will be necessary.
If the Boston Celtics are listening, I implore them to be proactive in helping Rajon Rondo get over his free throw struggles. Even if other mind-techniques have been tried, it's never too late to try again. While his unique character has allowed him to develop into the star player he is today, it is clear that he needs help in this facet of his game.
Rondo knows he needs to get better and he wants to, but it's possible he doesn't understand how to get past this self-imposed psychological block.
If the Boston Celtics become NBA Finals contenders and Rajon Rondo is still leading the way, do you want to be worried about him making his free throws? Of course not, but the last thing you want is for him to be worrying about making them, because then you have a player who's probably going to brick, just like he did on Friday.