What the Boston Celtics making NBA history means for the Cleveland Cavaliers

The Boston Celtics set NBA history with zero free throws in a game for the first time ever. This may have major impact for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs.
Detroit Pistons v Cleveland Cavaliers
Detroit Pistons v Cleveland Cavaliers / Jason Miller/GettyImages

After shooting zero free throws in a game for the first time in NBA history, the Boston Celtics shine a light on a shifting trend that may have major implications for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

For years, many fans of the NBA have been complaining about exaggerated flopping and how soft the game has become. Commissioner Adam Silver and the powers that be have heard the noise and finally decided to take action. Both the eye test and March free throw statistics confirm that it seems the NBA referees have been instructed to call fewer fouls and let the players play more physically. It is a change that is being celebrated by many of the fans, as games are moving faster with fewer flops being rewarded with free throws that pause the game.

This has not been outright confirmed by the league, but looking at the statistics since the All Star Break, it is clear an emphasis was made to lower the amount of fouls and free throws. This is likely due to all the complaints from fans and media members about the flopping and favorable calls for superstars. Watching players such as Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Trae Young, and James Harden could be frustrating as they knew how and when to exaggerate contact to get to the free throw line. 

In Tuesday’s game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Celtics, they tied an NBA record with only two free throw attempts in the entire game. The Celtics ended the night with zero trips to the charity stripe for the first time in NBA history. Maybe both teams were playing with a defensive strategy to not send the other team to the free throw line. Even so if that was the case, this is an astounding statistic that speaks volumes about the bigger picture.

For a game with major postseason implications for the Bucks, the irregularities in the officiating raises eyebrows. After years of free throw rates ascending, this uniquely bizarre night in NBA history is only an indicator of a recent shift in officiating across the NBA. The Cavaliers have faced harder, physical defenses alongside their 29 counterparts, and it has drastically changed the landscape of the game ahead of the postseason.

A historically low month for free throws

Throughout March, teams have averaged only 19.7 free throw attempts per game, marking a new low across the Association since 1950-51. This is an incredible stat. A month is a large sample size to showcase that this is not a coincidence or fluke. The NBA is trying to cut down on free throws and keep the games moving at a faster pace with less disruption.

This is not only having an impact on the team level, but superstars are seeing less free throw attempts on an individual level. Last year, four players (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, and Luka Doncic) averaged over 10 free throws a game for the season. This season, only one player (Antetokounmpo) is averaging over 10, and Luka Doncic is second in the league averaging 8.7 attempts per game. For further reference, that figure would have been seventh in the NBA last season.

This mid-season change could have a big impact on which top teams in the NBA will be able to have a long postseason run. So, the question is - how will this impact the Cavaliers' postseason chances of success? Let's take a look at the pros and cons of the new rules from the Cavs' perspective.

How this change affects the Cavaliers

The good news is that the Cleveland Cavaliers offensive playstyle is not dependent on going to the free throw line. The big men, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, don’t look to initiate and oversell contact when around the rim and are more focused on scoring than drawing a foul. This is reflected by Allen only averaging free throws a game, and Mobley with 3.5 a game.

Donovan Mitchell is Cleveland's most physical offensive player when healthy, but he also relies on outside shooting for a lot of his points. Mitchell leads the team with 5.8 free throws per game - not an extraordinarily high figure. Darius Garland is the only player on the team that has a tendency to flop or exaggerate contact. As an undersized guard, Garland's only opportunities for free throws requires a hard sell when driving into a post filled with giants. Unfortunately, it clearly is not effective, as Garland averages only 3.1 free throws a game.

As a team, the Cavs are 24th in the league in free throw attempts with 20.4 a game (the Celtics and Nuggets are 25th and 29th respectively). This can be a promising statistic, as the game tends to get even more physical in the postseason while the officials will call even fewer fouls. Successful teams need to be able to generate offense without getting easy trips to the foul line. Good outside shooting and strong finishers around the rim are two good ways to get points when the quality of play raises up a level. The Cavaliers are capable of doing both of things with a slew of shooters, Donovan’s ability to finish and two seven-footers around the rim.

Another potential pro of these rule changes is Cleveland's defense having a raised ceiling. The Cavs already have a strong defense despite their recent issues. They are seventh in the league in opponent’s points per game and sixth in the league in opponent field goal percentage; however, they can go up a level if they learn how to utilize a more physical approach. The Cavaliers have multiple talented defenders like Max Strus, Isaac Okoro and Dean Wade alongside their starting frontcourt.. If these players can learn to lean into the more physical rules without consequence, the Cavaliers could be a defensive juggernaut in the playoffs.

On the other end, the Cavs' offense may struggle to find an answer to physical defenses. Many Cavaliers fans would point to the same glaring flaw in the team, being too soft too often. The Cavs have been criticized frequently for being too soft and getting pushed around by more physical teams. This was on full display in the 2023 playoff series against the New York Knicks. The Cavaliers led the 2023 postseason in two crucial statistics; offensive rebounds allowed per game and turnovers.

The Knicks bullied the Cavs and grabbed 15 offensive rebounds per game in the series, and Cleveland also turned it over 15.2 times per game. The Cavaliers were indeed “too soft” in the playoffs that year. They let the Knicks push them around, grab every rebound and take the ball from them. This flaw could compound now that the NBA officials are allowing a more physical game. If teams can ramp up the aggression even more, the Cavs could be in for a difficult postseason. 

Ultimately, this is all on the players to change the narrative and take advantage of their playoff opportunity. Donovan Mitchell and the rest of the Cavaliers need to raise their toughness and rise to the occasion when it is finally time for the postseason. This year has no excuses, and Cleveland has all the pieces to make a larger impression in the playoffs if they are willing and able to absorb contact and play through the physicality.

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