Live by the three, die by the three. That's been true so far in the NBA postseason, but with an emphasis on the first part of the statement.
Take the Boston Celtics. As our analysis suggested before the playoffs, the Celtics have missed All-Star Kevin Garnett--but entirely at the defensive end of the floor. Boston has the league's fifth-best Offensive Rating thus far, behind the four teams that have already won their series. There are many reasons for that, including Rajon Rondo's breakout turn and Glen Davis' strong play as Garnett's replacement. Beyond that, the Celtics are shooting a sizzling 42.4 percent from beyond the arc in this series, averaging nearly eight triples a game.
[All stats through Wednesday's games.]
While Boston's shooting in the playoffs represents an improvement even from the league-leading 39.7 percent of threes the Celtics hit in the regular season, it's still not good enough to lead the league over the short sample of five games apiece. The L.A. Lakers hit 44.6 percent of their threes en route to a 4-1 series win over Utah, and Denver was unconscious from downtown in their five-game victory over New Orleans, hitting nearly 10 threes a night at a 48.5 percent clip.
On the heels of a regular season in which the league again set a record for three-point shooting with the current three-point line at 36.7 percent (coming within decimal points of matching the all-time record, set in 1994-95 when the line was moved in to 22 feet), NBA teams as a whole have kept up the hot shooting in the playoffs. In fact, they are shooting slightly better than in the regular season. Their 36.9 percent is a dramatic improvement from recent postseasons.
Playoff Three-Point Shooting
The increase can't be attributed to lax defense in the early rounds of the playoffs. Last year, teams shot 35.3 percent on three-pointers in the first round before settling at 35.0 percent for the entirety of the playoffs.
As the three increasingly becomes a more valuable option for NBA teams, the percentage of attempts continues to rise. So too does their importance to offenses. As ESPN Insider's Ric Bucher explained on Tuesday, the Philadelphia 76ers' ability to compete with the Orlando Magic in their series can be traced largely to the three-point line in terms of both the Sixers' excellent perimeter defense and their own shooting, which had been atypically hot until a 4-for-18 clunker in Game Five.
While the Magic's reliance on perimeter shooting has been something of a vulnerability in the playoffs, Orlando still leads the series, part of a striking trend. The team that has made more three-pointers leads or has won seven of the eight series, the only exception being the Miami Heat (39 threes) trailing the Atlanta Hawks (25). The eight leaders have combined to shoot better (38.4 percent vs. 35.2 percent) and attempt nearly two more threes per game than the teams trailing or having already lost.
Even the Heat/Hawks series manages to show the importance of shooting when taken on a game-by-game basis. The vast majority of Miami's threes came in Game Two (15, a franchise record) and Game Three (12). Predictably, those were the Heat's two wins. By contrast to the 55.1 percent Miami shot from beyond the arc in the two wins, the Heat has hit at just a 23.5 percent clip (12-for-51) from downtown in three losses.
The critical nature of shooting is also evident in the lineup moves coaches are making throughout the league to get more shooters on the floor. Chicago is finishing games with a tiny lineup of guards Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich and Derrick Rose with swingman John Salmons at power forward. Portland's Nate McMillan benched Nicolas Batum for the start of the second half of Game Five in favor of sharpshooter Rudy Fernandez. And Donyell Marshall, having played sparingly all season, has seen more time for Philadelphia against Orlando because of his ability to space the floor from the power forward spot.
Winning the three-point line is not just about offense. The Cavaliers shot surprisingly poorly from three in their first-round series (30.9 percent), but they completely stifled Detroit at the other end in their four-game sweep. The Pistons made just 12 threes in four games and shot them at a 24.5 percent clip.
That's part of why the Celtics have had a difficult time of things in the first round. With Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich shooting well from distance, Chicago has hit a respectable 37.2 percent from three-point range--much better than the 34.9 percent three-point shooting Boston allowed in the regular season.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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