As Jordan Poole and the Warriors left San Antonio late on April 9, bound for their regular-season finale the next night in New Orleans, Poole’s phone buzzed with an incoming text. Stephen Curry had something to say about his young teammate’s free-throw shooting.
“Hey, don’t miss any tomorrow,” Curry texted.
Their friendly tussle had reached its final chapter. Poole, at that moment, stood at 92.4% for the season. Curry, back home in the Bay Area recovering from his sprained foot, was stuck at 92.3%. They had calculated the mathematical possibilities: Only one Poole miss in the last game (unless he made at least 10) would drop him below Curry for the season.
Poole, ignoring good-natured pressure from the most accurate free-throw shooter in NBA history, made all four of his attempts against the Pelicans. He finished the season at a league-best 92.5%, barely ahead of Curry. The ever-cool Poole finished the season by sinking 28 consecutive shots from the line.
Head coach Steve Kerr, after awarding the game ball to Kevon Looney for playing in all 82 games, recognized Poole in his postgame locker-room speech in New Orleans. Warriors players congratulated their 22-year-old free-throw champion, who had improbably knocked off the king — who happened to be his teammate and mentor.
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“When you are competing with the best free-throw shooter in the league, you kind of up your performance a little bit,” Poole said this week. “It was cool to have that healthy competition, for sure.”
Poole and Curry achieved a rare feat, becoming only the third set of teammates to finish 1-2 in the NBA in free-throw accuracy (and the first tandem to do so in 35 years), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. They joined Boston’s Larry Bird and Danny Ainge in 1986-87 and Houston’s Rick Barry and Calvin Murphy, who did it 1978-79 and again the next season.
Widen the scope to add Klay Thompson, who shot 90.2% from the line this season, and Golden State’s three guards became only the fifth trio of teammates to shoot 90% or better in the same season (also per Elias), with a minimum of 50 attempts per player.
That was Poole’s target all along: Early in the season, he set a goal of eclipsing 90%. He made 88.2% last season, so it seemed realistic. Poole didn’t think much about leading the NBA, partly because Curry, the all-time leader at 90.8%, is a four-time league champ.
The Warriors’ Jordan Poole shoots a free throw in the second half against the Los Angeles Lakers at Chase Center on February 12, 2022 in San Francisco, California.
They both savored the back-and-forth banter, tracking the competition all year.
“That’s how Klay and I used to do it with 3-point shooting,” Curry said. “It’s always good motivation within our team, the standard you want to set. I don’t think either one of us would ever let the other off the hook for missing free throws.”
Here lies the strange, unexpected twist in this tale. Curry returned for the first-round playoff series against Denver and suddenly became curiously human at the line. He missed four free throws in Game 4, the first time he had done that since he was a college junior at Davidson.
Curry went 29-for-39 in the Nuggets series (74%), meaning he missed nearly half as many in five games (10) as he did in 64 regular-season games (23).
And the sight of the ball disobediently bouncing off the rim clearly angered Curry. He mouthed the word “four” in aggravated disbelief when he missed for the fourth time last Sunday in Denver. On Wednesday night, in Game 5, he stared at the basket after one miss, utterly perplexed.
Curry clearly takes it personally when he misses from the line, understandable for a player who has made 88% or more in all but one of his 13 NBA seasons. So why does this bother him so much? Start with the fact nobody is playing defense on free throws.
“Yeah, it’s the easiest shot in the game,” Curry said. “It’s like a PGA Tour pro missing a 3-foot putt, or maybe a 5-footer. Five to seven feet is probably like a free throw for them. It’s one thing you can control; you practice it all the time. …
“That’s the same way we approach free throws. It’s one thing nobody else controls but you. So if you can shoot the ball, you should be able to make it.”
The Warriors’ Stephen Curry shoots a free throw as Klay Thompson and Draymond Green watch against Denver Nuggets during Warriors’ 102-98 win in Game 5 of NBA Western Conference first round playoff game at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif, on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle
Monet Poole agrees with Curry. Jordan’s mom remembered seeing her son raining 3-point shots over opponents when he was a spindly 8-year-old, winning MVP honors in youth tournaments around his hometown of Milwaukee.
“It didn’t make sense to hit all these 3s and miss a free throw,” Monet Poole said in a phone interview. “I didn’t understand it. I said, ‘There’s nobody guarding you, so there’s no reason you should miss.’ ”
Jordan Poole received postgame texts from his mom as recently as his college games at Michigan. She often praised the way he played — and chided him for any missed free throws.
His dad, Anthony Poole, found distinctive motivation: Anthony made young Jordan do 15 push-ups for every free throw he missed in a game while growing up. That became a shared family memory, young Jordan doing push-ups right there on the family-room floor, in front of his parents and sister, Jaiden.
“I was skinny and didn’t want to do too many push-ups,” Poole said. “So I didn’t miss too many free throws.”
For the record, Monet Poole found new appreciation for the challenge of free throws when she and her daughter visited Jordan at the Warriors’ practice facility last summer. They each missed several shots as Jordan talked them through the process.
By contrast, he becomes agitated with himself — much like Curry does — when he misses from the free-throw line, whether it’s in a game or practice. They share this in common with Kerr, their coach.
Kerr shot 86.4% from the line in his NBA career. He mostly was a perimeter shooter and didn’t get to the line often; his career-high for attempts in a season was 97, well below the totals for Curry (298) and Poole (266) this season.
Even so, Kerr still laments missing his final free-throw attempt as a pro. It happened with 35 seconds left in Game 5 of the 2003 NBA Finals, with Kerr and the San Antonio Spurs safely ahead of New Jersey on their way to the championship.
“I shot the second one a little short, it kind of went in and out,” Kerr said. “I was so pissed. I knew I was going to retire and didn’t want to miss the last free throw of my life.”
Kerr and Curry engaged in free-throw shooting contests after practice for several years, with one point for a make and two for a swish. Curry often won because he swished more shots.
Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) at the free-throw line in the second quarter against the Houston Rockets at Chase Center, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif.
Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle
As they acknowledged, the roots of elite free-throw shooting involve mechanics: rhythm, release, arc, soft touch. Also do not underestimate how the psychological layer plays into the equation.
couldn’t quite get comfortable at the line in a few seasons, he recalled and that affected his efficiency. He pointed to the emotions of the process, when the fast-paced action pauses and the entire arena’s focus turns to one player standing with the ball, 15 feet from the basket.
Kerr: “It’s so easy to get out of whack at the foul line, because you’ve got too much time to think. It’s the only time of the game when you’re not flowing or moving. Time sort of stops. That’s probably the most impressive aspect of what Jordan has done — for such a young player, he has a lot of poise and confidence.”
Poole: “I feel like that’s where you have to be the most locked in, because you’re running around so much and everything is so fast. You’re shooting shots on the move and everything is contested. Then you have to flip the switch and relax. You’ve done this a million times, so go ahead and knock it down.”
Curry: “We have all the mechanics down, so it’s 99% mental in terms of following your routine, blocking out a miss and moving on. I missed two in a row in the first half of Game 4 (against Denver) and I just ran back down the court, laughing-mad at myself. And then you just move on.”
As the Warriors move deeper into the playoffs, they could reap rewards from having the NBA’s top two free-throw shooters. Curry, despite his earlier struggles, went 3-for-4 in the final 20 seconds Wednesday night, to cement the series-clinching win over Denver.
That’s a significant advantage in a close playoff game, to have two players who shot better than 90% for a full season and another, Thompson, who reached the plateau in an injury-shortened campaign.
Poole and Curry didn’t officially have anything riding on their free-throw duel this season, though Poole might talk to Curry about it. For his part, Curry seemed open to a future bet “now that we have an actual legit competition.”