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NBA Playoffs 2019: Will the three-pointer continue to be the No 1 weapon of choice for teams in postseason?

The end began with Russell Westbrook missing a tough, contested layup.

The game was tied at 115-all at that point, and Westbrook’s miss handed the final possession of this ‘Win or Go Home’ game to Portland, with the shot-clock turned off. Portland were leading the series 3-1, playing in front of a raucous home crowd at the Moda Center, and had a chance to end the series. They just needed one point, and they had about 18 seconds to score it.

The ball ended up with Damian Lillard, the hottest hand all series. Lillard had been scintillating against the Thunder, averaging 33 points per game on 46 percent shooting. What made him especially unstoppable was his prowess from beyond the three-point line, from where he had shot over 48 percent in five games, with 25 total made threes up to that point. His range had gotten absurdly dangerous, reaching what the NBA now knows as the unofficial “Steph Curry Zone”. His efficiency from center-court and within had earned him the nickname “Logo Lilliard”.

In Game 5, Lillard had already scored 47. And with the final seconds of the game ticking down, there seemed to be no second thoughts in his mind. Guarding him was Paul George, one of the best perimeter defenders that the association had to offer. Lillard ignored him. The distance was about 37 feet, far behind the three-point line. Lillard ignored that. Teammates ahead of him cut into the lane and made room for a pass or a drive. He didn’t need it.

Time ticked down. Lillard dribbled, dribbled. Looked at George. Looked at the basket. Stepped back on one foot, and threw up the shot with a little more than a second left. By the time the ball fell swish into the basket, the clocked had drained to zero. The buzzer had sounded. Lillard had his 26th three of the series. He had 50 points. He had pushed the game score to 118-115 and the series score to 4-1. He sent the Thunder home. He waved goodbye.

For most of NBA history, Lillard’s decision to end the game (and the series) with a 37-footer would’ve seemed absurd. The degree of difficulty alone would make past coaches clench their fists in frustration.

But this is 2019, and for the league’s greatest snipers, the long-range bucket is the most devastating weapon in their arsenal. For players like Lillard, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Lillard’s teammate CJ McCollum and so many others, going for a three now seems like the obvious solution to most problems. In Game 5, for instance, even when Portland only needed a two-pointer (or a free throw), Lillard took the three: he had already hit seven outside shots, so the eighth (even in this pressure-packed situation) seemed like an extension of the synergy he had felt all night.

As the first round of the NBA Playoffs have proven, the players and teams with the most three-pointers made at the highest efficiency are usually emerging as the winner. This isn’t a new development, of course: threes have been a crucial part of the game for decades, and with the “Curry revolution” of the recent years, the importance of the outside shot has been cranked up higher than ever before.

Seven of the eight first-round series were won by teams that made more threes than their opponents: Raptors, Nuggets, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Warriors, Bucks, and Celtics. The only exception to the rule was the 76ers-Nets series, where the latter made ten more threes in the series than Philadelphia, but Philly shot their three-pointers at a marginally better percentage.

More threes haven’t exactly equalled to more wins in the regular season. Three of the top three-point making teams (Rockets, Bucks, Warriors) each finished with over 50 wins, but after that, the outside shot could hardly be considered to be a deciding factor, where non-Playoff or low-seeded teams like Hawks, Nets, Mavericks, and Pistons falling in the top-10.

League-wide, three-pointers have never been more popular. For the seventh-consecutive season, the NBA set a record for three-pointers made. Harden, who was the league’s leading scorer, attempted over a thousand threes in the course of the season, the most in history.

The revolution has been mathematised: even though three-pointers are a lower-percentage shot than most twos, the extra point makes up for the percentage disparity if even threes are attempted and made. The rise in long offensive rebounds and pace of the league are all connected to the three-pointer. Almost every team in the league is now attempting more threes than ever before, with Harden’s Rockets leading the fray with 45.4 per game in the regular season.

There used to be an outdated dogma in the league against purely jump-shooting teams until recently, that they wouldn’t have enough to succeed in the Playoffs or win a title. The Warriors’ success in the past few years has mostly silenced those critics. And even in the argument that Golden State has relied on overall talent (and not just outside shooting) for their success, the opponents that have tested them most-closely in recent years have done so through the power of the three, too. In the 2017 Finals, the only game that the Cavaliers could win was on the back of a historic barrage of three-point shooting. Last year’s Rockets pushed the Warriors to seven behind their limitless green-light from beyond the arc.

The Rockets lived by the three last season, and then died by it, in an infamous Game 7 stretch of the Western Conference Finals where they missed 27 consecutive outside shots. Instead of changing their philosophy, they seemed to have doubled-down this season on the back of Harden’s unstoppable step-back threes to challenge the Warriors again in the second round.

But simply taking and making more threes doesn’t equal success. Despite fielding three of the best shooters in history (Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant), the real reason behind the Warriors’ success has been their efficiency. The Warriors aren’t top of the three-pointers attempted list, but they have always been a high-percentage shooting team from outside the arc. Through the first round of the Playoffs, they finished with the second-best three-point shooting percentage (39.9 percent) and second-best effective field goal percentage (57.4 percent) in the opening round.

Meanwhile the teams that resisted the outside shot, or were incapable of good three-point shooting, flamed out early. The worst five three three-point shooting teams (in terms of percentage) lost the first round in five or four games.

The big exception, as mentioned earlier, were the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers made only nine threes a game in the first round, worse than anyone else in the Playoffs except for the mid-range heavy San Antonio Spurs. This was not entirely unusual, as Philly — despite having some good shooters like JJ Redick, Mike Scott, and Tobias Harris on the squad — have been three-shy all season, averaging a relatively low 10.8 threes per game.

The 76ers are a unique team. While the primary ball-handlers of other contenders (Curry, Harden, Lillard, Irving, Lowry, etc.) are all good outside shooters, the 76ers’ de-facto point guard — Ben Simmons — is almost allergic to any outside shot. Simmons’ offensive brilliance rests on his floor vision, playmaking, and inside finishing; Simmons only attempted six three-pointers all season, making none of them. For his career, he stands 0-17 from beyond the three-point line, the type of figures that would find him more comfortable in the 1980s than the current era.

But blessed with a scintillating offence that operates inside and outside and a high rebound rate, the 76ers have managed to get this far without going long-distance trigger happy. In Joel Embiid, Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Reddick, they have had enough size and talent to defeat mathematics… so far. Time will tell if it will be enough for the rest of the postseason.

76ers will be facing Toronto in Round 2, a series that will test them both in size, shooting, and defence. Led by Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, and others, the Raptors are excellent shooters of the three, and excellent at keeping opponent’s three-point percentage low all season. They are also deep and willing passers, with the ability to hurt opponents through a multitude of different weapons.

The only team that won more game than Toronto all season were the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks finished the regular season top four in both offensive and defensive rating, top five in rebounds, and featuring arguably the best player in the league all season, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Like many other high usage-rate players, Antetokounmpo has become a better three-point shooter as the season has progressed. Surrounded by shooters in Kris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, they moved past Detroit with an easy sweep in the first round.

Milwaukee will now face the Boston Celtics. Boston were a topsy-turvy team all season but switched gears with discipline in their own first round sweep of Indiana. Irving was firing at all cylinders, leading the Celtics to shoot nearly forty percent overall from beyond the arc. This is also a good defensive team with a deep rotation that will test Milwaukee’s role players.

The last team to qualify through to the second round was the Denver Nuggets, who survived a funky series against the experienced San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are an anti-thesis of today’s NBA. Despite taking fewer threes than anyone else in the Playoffs, they pushed Denver to a Game 7, and in that decisive game in Denver, the Spurs even outshot the Nuggets from the three-point line. It took home-cooking and a brilliant triple-double by Nikola Jokic to finally fend the Spurs off with a 90-86 victory.

Waiting for the Nuggets will be the Trail Blazers, the squad that shot the highest percentage of threes in the first round (40.5 percent) and qualified for the second after that magical series-clincher by Lillard. Near the end of the season, Portland lost their big man Jusuf Nurkic to serious leg injury, which threatened to hurt the team’s inside-outside balance. But led by their hot-shooting backcourt of Lillard and McCollum, the Trail Blazers have kept marching on, relying on outside shooting and strong team rebounding numbers to make up for their loss.

Not long after Portland and buried and bye-byed the Thunder, Paul George — the man who had been defending Lillard for that fateful final shot — groused, “That was a bad shot… I don’t care what anybody says, that’s a bad shot. But, hey, he made it.”

In another time, in another era, against another opponent, yes, George would’ve been correct. That would’ve indeed been a bad shot. But not for Lilliard, who made 34 percent of his shots from a distance of 30-40 feet all season. And even though the stats of the other players aren’t as impressive, in today’s NBA, that would’ve not necessarily been a terrible shot anymore for McCollum, or Curry, or Thompson, or Harden, Eric Gordon, Jamal Murray, Reddick, or even for George himself.

Now that the first round is over, the discrepancies of talent between the teams will be skewed a little, their distinctions a little more subtle. It will take more than threes to win a series. The better defensive teams, the better passers, the better rebounders, or the deeper units will all come in handy.

But as long as 3>2, you can count on teams for letting it fly, to live by the three (or die without it).

Second Round Predictions:

Bucks 4-2 Celtics.

Raptors 4-3 76ers.

Warriors 4-2 Rockets.

Trail Blazers 4-3 Nuggets.

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Updated Date: Apr 28, 2019 20:11:02 IST