In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Boston’s opening play rose from a loose game. It started with Celtics point guard Marcus Smart dribbling past the halfcourt logo with Al Horford running past him toward the left block. On his way there, Horford brushed past Celtics forward Grant Williams, who approached the wing.
It’s technically acceptable to say that Horford “set up a pick” for Williams, but that doesn’t really describe what happened because the Bucks responded as if the game hadn’t even started. Neither Brook Lopez (over Williams) nor Giannis Antetokounmpo (over Horford) moved until Williams caught Smart’s pass behind the 3-point line, squared his shoulders and fumbled the ball, which went in. Over the next 47 minutes, Williams threw 17 more 3-pointers. and made six, while Milwaukee chose not to adjust.
To some this may seem like a curious decision. Williams averaged 3.4 3-point attempts per game during the regular season. He also made 41.1% of them, which was second best on the team. But if he was standing in the strongside corner or if he had enough time above halftime to check his shoelaces, test the wind and line up the seams on the ball, Milwaukee didn’t care. Those shots were fine as long as Lopez stood in the paint and deterred close-range shots from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
“It’s almost like a make-or-miss situation, or a gamble on your part to show it from the outside,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said recently. “And if you have a night of offside shooting, it benefits them. If you have a good shooting night, you usually win.”
This has been the fundamental strategy of the Bucks since they hired Mike Budenholzer. But with just 12.1% of Boston shooting at the rim, the lowest rate of the season to that point, Game 7 also marked a larger trend seen in the past six NBA playoffs. As three-point rates go up, shots go down. The scale on which they are tested has decreased in each of the past six postseasons and, at just 23.9% after Game 4 of these Finals, is down by any point in at least 22 years. Put another way: During the 2017 playoffs, nearly a third of all shots went to the rim. Now, it’s less than a quarter. (There’s also a decline during the regular season, but, at 28.9% this year, it’s much less pronounced.)
Numbers are numbers, but there’s no easy way to explain why hoop shots are declining in the playoffs, during an era when driving lanes have never been wider, on floors that are increasingly populated by wings, guards and undersized giants who can put the ball in the ground and close. Instead, a combination of factors tells the story: from aggressive defenses that prioritize rim protection to offenses that are willing to take what the defense gives them as they push and kick until the right shooter makes a quality shot.
Throughout this run, the Celtics have seen it all. And his coach has a theory about why shooting rims has been an increasingly difficult proposition for his team, which features an offense that really wants to finish at the basket.
“A lot more changeups keep guys from going downhill to the basket,” says Udoka. “We played some quality teams with rim protectors in Milwaukee and Miami. And so a big part of that deterrence is protecting the paint and getting you to hit them from the outside. We saw how that worked in our favor against Milwaukee. These teams are loading the paint more than ever. Not just with a rim protector, but they all help specific people to protect the paint.”
A lot of this is dictated by teams that are locked away to avert certain eyes. Defenses that can’t build a moat around the restricted area with huge human obstacles like Lopez and Giannis are increasingly helping out outside the perimeter to control what they can.
“I think there’s a higher priority on protecting the paint because 3-point shooting is so good,” Warriors forward Draymond Green says. “It goes back to the Steph Curry effect. If you can constantly get into someone’s painting, then the world opens up. Then I [also] I think the game is a lot more athletic than it was before…the sheer length of guys in this league makes it a lot harder to get to the rim and finish. I think it’s a big change in this game.
“So also teams are hunting more 3-pointers. Even the priority for most teams, is it is to get into the lane and kick for a three, instead of getting into the lane and finishing at the rim or getting into the lane and getting to his midrange. I think that also adds to the fall.”
Former NBA coach and current Turner analyst Stan Van Gundy agrees with that last point. The constant reduction in shots at the rim has as much to do with revised offensive philosophies as it does with defensive schemes. “Instead of challenging people to the hoop, a lot of times if you get to the hoop and help comes, you throw that thing and shoot all three of them,” he said. “That approach has certainly changed.”
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In some ways, the Green’s Warriors are more responsible for the drop in frequency at the rim than any other franchise. Shot location bias at Oracle Arena and Chase Center juicing numbers on the golden state rim a little, but his own predilection for the 3-point shot, plus the Warriors’ embrace of defensive versatility and dynamic coverage, helped turn the Bay Area in a petri dish for the evolution of basketball. The Warriors have brought change into fashion and brought the game to a new atmospheric layer by going small and surrounding Green with the best shooters in NBA history. A notable path to his success has been a commitment to forcing shots off the basket.
This has been clear throughout the Finals, especially when the Celtics made 41 3-pointers in Game 1. “Every time we got the ball up the middle, they’d collapse the paint and the kicks were wide open,” Udoka said afterward. “The guys stepped up and did them. We’ll take that all the time. Knowing that they are a bit smaller, that they don’t have rim protection, they do it as a team. That is an opportunity that is given many times”. But some of those 3s didn’t need to be set up for a drive because Golden State’s help defenders (like Green) were blocking the paint before any drive could begin. (In Game 4, only 14.1% of Boston’s shots made it to the rim.)
The accelerated migration behind the arc is well known, but not all shots that once came from the rim are now 3-pointers. Many have turned into short push shots, floaters and pull-ups. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra doesn’t know why shooting is on the decline. “But I only know [getting to the rim] it’s hard,” he says. “You talk about the whole year, or the last few years, about the quality of the shots, and you want to make layups, free throws, 3-pointers. Good luck if that’s all you’re trying to achieve. In the conference finals and beyond, everyone is too well trained in scouting and preparation, it only goes up tenfold, so you have to make some of these plays in the middle.”
For 15 years, the shooting rate remained constant, hovering between 30 and 32 percent, even as the number of 3-pointers began to increase. The redistribution observed in the last six years cannot be explained solely by the prolonged explosion of three points. In 2016-17, shots at rim more than doubled those shorter midrange shots, from 32.2% to 17.3%. Five years later, that 15% gap has evaporated. In these playoffs, mid-range short shots now account for 24.2% of all attempts made. Again: shots a the edge are 24%.
“It’s definitely different from when I first came into the league until now. It’s a focus on stopping layups and being there,” Warriors center Kevon Looney says. “They talk about how the league is getting smaller. There are still guys in there that can really block shots, guys that can jump up and make things difficult for guys. … I talk to the guys on the team about it. Some of the guards aren’t understanding when you get a delivery and don’t convert it, like they get mad at you. A lot of hands came in, a lot of guys trying to block shots. It’s hard to score down there.”
It is worth asking when/if this trend will turn around or breakout, and what it would take for either of those scenarios to occur. Aside from the manual control return tour (to suppress penetration), the competition committee decided that three-second violations should be two-second violations or that playoff teams may field lineups containing four or five three-second shooters. 40% points without getting torched in the On the other hand, it’s not easy to see an NBA that discourages defenses from favoring the rim or offenses from chasing as many 3-pointers as they can.
When Warriors wing Andre Iguodala is asked why he thinks shooting is on the decline, he looks back for a moment before beginning his response with a smile. “I don’t know if I could answer that politically correct. There’s just more emphasis on shooting threes. I guess that has taken away the aggressiveness to get to the basket. … I don’t know, it’s just the trend with the rules, and hopefully I’ll see guys finish more in the basket again.”
Hiding interior defenders in poor shooters is not new. There are examples (notably, Golden State putting Andrew Bogut over Tony Allen in Game 4 of the 2015 Western Conference semifinals) that led to offensive counterattacks (plus dribbling trades set up by ignored non-shooters). But some decent shooters are now treated like a liability. Of course, there are obvious exceptions on both sides of the ball, but “gravity” and “spacing” are two positive offensive byproducts infused into modern NBA basketball by the 3-point shot, usually in reference to how they open up the ball. field and allow for more desirable bunnies.
But by helping out as aggressively as defenses are, those terms are becoming a little less important. If this sounds a bit reductive, it is. Of course, defenses don’t want to allow open 3s to someone like Grant Williams, who shot 44.6% of his shots before the All-Star Game. They would like to get them out of line or at least put up some serious competition. But removing it all is not an option. And from either side’s point of view, layups, dunks, lobs, and spikes are more efficient than a three. They also return a lower variance.
As the stars set the table for everyone else against defenses that are locked down to slow them down, it’s players like Williams who have to prove, at least for one game, that they can take advantage while being ignored; if the NBA continues down the path it’s on, looks at the basket may eventually become rare.
“The dynamic of the league changed. The rules have changed. The spacing has changed. The players have changed,” says Grant Williams. “You have talent that can not only space the floor but also create and get to the paint. But most of the time you do it, they’re so focused on defending it that it leads to open 3s and kickout opportunities. … I think that’s part of what makes the league great.”
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