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The Grizzlies Foul So Damn Much

After the Memphis Grizzlies got trounced 96-82 on Monday night by the San Antonio Spurs in Game 2 of their series, Memphis coach David Fizdale couldn’t help but notice a disparity in the number of fouls that were called. The Grizzlies shot just 15 free throws to San Antonio’s 32. Fizdale blamed the refs.

“Zach Randolph, the most rugged guy in the game, had zero free throws,” Fizdale said after Monday’s game. “But somehow Kawhi Leonard had 19 free throws. First half, we shot 19 shots in the paint, and we had six free throws. They shot 11 times in the paint, and they had 23 free throws. I’m not a numbers guy, but that doesn’t seem to add up. Overall, 35 times we shot the ball in the paint. We had 15 free throws for the game. They shot 18 times in the paint and had 32 free throws. Kawhi shot more free throws than our whole team. Explain it to me.”

In general, Fizdale had a point: The more teams go to the rim, the more they draw free throws. And he’s right that Game 2 fell outside the norm. Here’s a chart showing how often each team in the league took a shot within 3 feet of the basket versus how often they drew fouls:

On Monday night, the Grizzlies attempted 25.6 percent of their shots from within 3 feet and had a free-throw rate of .183; the Spurs attempted 19.7 from that range and had a free-throw rate of .525. The free-throw rates of both teams for Game 2 would be literally off the chart — although they aren’t crazy disparities for an individual game (in fact, Game 1 of the Wizards-Hawks series featured a similar split) — so the game pretty obviously falls outside of the usual averages for NBA teams.

There’s also a little more to it than how often a team gets to the line, and that’s how often a team sends its opponent there. For the season, the Grizzlies were the team with the biggest disparity between their own free-throw rate and their opponents’. (Free-throw rate is a team’s free-throw attempts divided by its field-goal attempts.) Memphis had a free-throw rate of .280 (pretty good, 11th in the league) and an opponent free-throw rate of .341 (worst in the league) for a league-worst difference of -.061. (The Spurs, meanwhile, were tenth in the league, with a .014 difference.)

That means Memphis spent the whole season sending their opponents to the line more than they got there, which makes Fizdale’s complaint a bit harder to take at face value. The disparity with the Spurs may not have been because of officiating in a single game, but more likely because the Grizzlies’ inside shots often rely on pivot moves or quick stops instead of the bruising drives that are rewarded with free throws, and because of their season-long penchant for fouling shooters.

Kyle Wagner is a former senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.