The two upset victims during the first round of the NBA playoffs share a common thread: a love of the three-point shot. The Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs, who both lost their series in six games last week, ranked atop the league in three-point attempts and three-point percentage, respectively. Yet both teams struggled to maintain that kind of perimeter attack in their playoff series, leading to early exits from the postseason.
Orlando's power outage from beyond the arc started with Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia. Because the Atlanta Hawks' two centers were able to hold Dwight Howard in check without double-team help, the Hawks could stay at home on the Magic's perimeter shooters and contest their long-distance attempts. Howard had just three assists in six games. Although he has never racked up dimes, more than half of the 1.4 assists Howard averaged during the regular season led to three-pointers, per Hoopdata.com.
Unable to play inside-out through Howard, Orlando could generate three-point attempts only through the pick-and-roll game. It's no coincidence that the only game in which the Magic shot better than 30 percent on threes (11-of-26, 42.3 percent in Game 5) was also the one in which early foul trouble kept Howard from being a major part of the Orlando offense.
All told, the Magic had the edge in every facet of the series with Atlanta save three-point shooting. Orlando made a dramatically better percentage of two-point attempts, got more offensive rebounds, got to the free throw line more often and turned the ball over less frequently, yet still lost. It was only fitting that the Magic had opportunities to force overtime in Games 4 and 6 with late three-pointers but missed both times.
The Memphis Grizzlies' victory over the Spurs was an even greater triumph of three-point defense. San Antonio's 39.7 percent accuracy beyond the arc during the regular season was the 14th-best shooting season in NBA history, but the Spurs shot worse than 30 percent (29.4 percent, to be exact) during the series with Memphis. San Antonio's offense is intended to create three-point attempts in a variety of ways, so the Grizzlies had to be attentive to multiple shooters at all times. Coach Lionel Hollins and assistant Dave Joerger designed a system that would allow Memphis to do that without sacrificing other facets of the team's defense.
Amazingly, not one Spurs player shot even league average (35.3 percent) from three-point range during the series with the Grizzlies. Role players Matt Bonner, Richard Jefferson and Gary Neal, all among the NBA's top 12 three-point shooters during the regular season (Bonner led the league), saw particularly troublesome power outages form beyond the arc.
Player Season Series
Bonner .457 .333
Jefferson .440 .353
Neal .419 .263
Hill .377 .267
Parker .357 .125
Ginobili .349 .321
,p>The temptation is to conclude that an offense heavy on three-point attempts is problematic in the postseason. Based on a longer sample of postseason history, that would be an overstatement. As recently as two years ago, the Magic reached the NBA Finals with an offense that relied more on the three-pointer than any other in the league. Even more recently, the Phoenix Suns unexpectedly reached the Western Conference Finals last spring with three-point statistics very similar to this year's Spurs offense. (Phoenix ranked fifth in threes as a percentage of all shot attempts but led the league by shooting 41.2 percent from beyond the arc.) Overall, teams that shoot many threes have performed largely as expected in the playoffs based on their seed and regular-season statistics.
In general, the three-pointer has become critical to effective modern NBA offenses. Seven of the teams that ranked in the league's top 10 in three-point attempts as a percentage of all shot attempts also boasted top-10 Offensive Ratings. Not only are threes an efficient weapon in their own right because of the high percentages that players now achieve beyond the arc, an attack that features the three-pointer spaces the floor and creates opportunities for players to post up and create off the dribble.
None of that changes during the postseason, certainly. But the fates of Orlando and San Antonio might highlight the equally critical nature of three-point defense. Of the NBA's 10 best teams at defending the three, only the Milwaukee Bucks failed to reach the playoffs--and that was because of an anemic offense, as Milwaukee ranked fourth in the league in Defensive Rating.
During the regular season, Atlanta allowed opponents the league's fourth-lowest three-point percentage, so the Hawks' strong three-point defense against the Magic should have come as no surprise. The Grizzlies' success is more noteworthy, since Memphis was actually one of the NBA's worst teams at defending the three during the regular season. Opponents shot 36.9 percent from beyond the arc against the Grizzlies, putting them 24th in the league. With the opportunity to plan for a specific opponent over a short series, however, Memphis was able to reverse that trend.
Who else might be vulnerable? Surprisingly, just one of the NBA's top nine teams in terms of relative three-point attempts remains in the playoffs. That's the Dallas Mavericks, who ranked third behind Orlando and the New York Knicks. The Mavericks had no problems beyond the arc in knocking off the Portland Trail Blazers during the first round, ranking third among playoff teams in three-point percentage and second in offensive rating.
The Los Angeles Lakers figure to present Dallas a far greater perimeter challenge. Thanks to their length and ability to play one-on-one defense at most positions without requiring help, the Lakers held opponents to 33.5 percent shooting beyond the arc, good for third in the league. Although the Mavericks' offense is diverse enough to survive a drop in three-point percentage, they will probably need to find their outside touch to pull off the upset in this series.
As for Orlando and San Antonio, as both teams seek to regroup after unexpected losses, it makes little sense to overreact to six games' worth of bad three-point shooting. Offenses built around the long ball have taken both the Magic and the Spurs to great heights, and the appropriate remedy is to tweak things to find answers when the threes aren't dropping, not a total overhaul.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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