Like a vintage bebop album, a successful basketball team has an innate sense of improvisation that makes it unpredictable.
But when a player steps to the free-throw line only one of two things can happen: his shot will be worth one point or it will keep the score as it was when the clock stopped.
Expect Tokyo Apache star Cohey Aoki to produce the option that puts a smile on the face of his coach, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant.
Aoki won free-throw shooting titles in each of the bj-league’s first two seasons. And he appears well on his way to a third title this season, entering December with a 32-for-32 effort from the welfare line (as inimitable New York Post basketball scribe Peter Vecsey likes to call it).
Aoki made 51 of 59 free throws in 2005-06 (86.4 percent). In the next season, he was 125-for-134 (93.3 percent). And last season he was successful 89.5 percent of the time (170-for-190).
Mr. Automatic was the difference-maker for the Apache in Sunday’s 86-80, down-to-the-wire victory over the Ryukyu Golden Kings at Ariake Colosseum.
He finished 8-for-8 from the foul line, making all eight in the tense final 1:07 of the fourth quarter en route to a 19-point performance. (It’s fair to assume that Ryukyu would rather have fouled anyone but Aoki the four times he earned a trip to the line).
What’s even more impressive than the fact that he makes nearly every free throw is the ease in which his shot leaves his hand, travels toward the basket and drops through the net in a one beautiful sequence.
An Aoki foul shot looks as simple as a handshake, an activity that is so mundane that it doesn’t require any level of concentration.
But that’s hardly the case, Bryant said, pointing out that Aoki’s focus on the task at hand makes him thrive at the line.
“He has the pure free-throw motion,” Bryant said of Aoki, “and his concentration and focus is just like no other I’ve seen. You can look at some players in the NBA, there have been some great free-throw shooters — Rick Barry, shooting underhand — but anytime you are shooting in the high-90s (percentage) in free throws that is just amazing.”
On Sunday, Bryant witnessed his All-Star guard’s super skills from courtside, and what occurred in the game’s most critical juncture didn’t surprise him at all.
“You know I was sitting there and I knew he hasn’t missed a free throw all year and I said, ‘Oh (expletive), is it time for him to miss one now?’ . . . But he knocks them down.”
One of the Apache’s most challenging activities during practice is when each player is required to make 20 free throws from each of the six baskets in the gym.
Aoki and center Nick Davis, who has never shot higher than 58.3 percent from the foul line in the previous three seasons, sometimes are teamed up together for this particular drill, working as shooting partners.
“That really helps us out Nick a lot,” Bryant observed. “So they kind of challenge each other, and as you know through the history, Nick has never been a great free-throw shooter, but by pairing him up with Cohey, and changing his mechanics and those kind of things, Nick is close to 60 percent (34-for-56, 60.7 percent this season).”
Sunday’s six-point triumph was a perfect reminder to Bryant that “if you are going to win consistently, you are going to have to make free throws. That’s just the name of the game.
“If you’re up by five points and you go to the free-throw line, you have to knock down two because that will give you a seven (-point lead). If you miss two, and the other team goes down and makes a three, then it’s only a two-point game.
“So free throws are so important for you to win matches.”
And it never hurts having a composed, relaxed star like Cohey Aoki at the line in the final moments of a close contest.
“He’s just a special player,” the coach concluded.
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