NBA playoff success has never been so dependent on 3s

    Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) is a professor and an NBA analyst for ESPN.

You’ve heard the maxim before: The NBA is a make or miss league. But it’s never been more true than in these playoffs. As the best basketball league in the world leans further and further into 3-point shooting, success from beyond the arc is increasingly deciding who wins the highest-stakes games to a drastic degree.

Consider this: For the first time in NBA history, 3-point shooters are outscoring paint scorers. Coming into Tuesday’s games, playoff scorers had yielded 4,602 points via 3s and 4,512 points in the paint. This fact is more than just trivia. It reveals that games are being won and lost far away from the rim — and that represents a paradigm shift in pro basketball.

For years, we’ve known 3-point shooters are streaky characters who impact wins. Over the past two seasons, Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet has made 46% of his 3s in playoff wins and just 26% of them in playoff losses. His hot streak helped lift the Raptors to the title last year, and as teams continue to assign more shots to these volatile perimeter threats, their importance skyrockets.

It can be incredible to witness, like when Klay Thompson caught fire in the 2016 Western Conference finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, hitting 11 3s and saving his team’s season with his red-hot jumpers. Or when Marcus Smart hit unconscious levels in Game 2 against Toronto last week, sinking five straight triples in the fourth quarter and helping the Celtics come back to steal a huge win.

But this high-variance action can also be hard to watch, like it was 10 days ago when Chris Paul and the Thunder made just seven of 46 3s en route to a brutal Game 5 loss against James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Folks, that bricky display was not fantastic.

Harden’s Rockets have been the harbingers of this whole movement. Back in 2016-17, they became the first team in history to ever take more than 40% of their shots from 3-point range. Just a few seasons later, all NBA postseason teams on average are taking 43.4% of their shots from beyond the arc, per Second Spectrum tracking data. Everybody is the Rockets now.

That 43.4% not only puts the league on pace to shatter the old 3-point rate record of 38% from last season, but also sets us up to see by far the biggest year-over-year uptick in 3-point activity in league history.

Postseason 3s

  • 2013-14: 44.6 3s per game | 27.9% of total shots

  • 2014-15: 51.1 | 30.2%

  • 2015-16: 51.5 | 31.0%

  • 2016-17: 58.2 | 34.8%

  • 2017-18: 59.8 | 35.5%

  • 2018-19: 65.9 | 37.9%

  • 2019-20: 74.8 | 43.4%

The 3-point revolution isn’t slowing down or even plateauing. It’s ramping up and reforming conventional wisdom at breakneck speed. Is this even the same sport?

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The game has changed, and if you can’t shoot 3s, you can’t win playoff games.

Check this out:

  • Per Second Spectrum tracking data, the eight 2020 conference semifinalists have logged around 39 3-point attempts per 100 possessions in both their wins and losses.

  • They’ve also logged nearly identical shot quality metrics in those wins and losses. The expected effective field goal percentage for all of their 3s based on shot location, shooter movement and defender distance has hovered around 52% on average. That ticks up to 53% if you’re taking into account the quality of the shooter.

  • But there’s a massive difference in shooting luck in playoff wins and losses. On average, playoffs winners are logging eFGs 12 percentage points greater than playoff losers — despite the shot qualities only differing by around 1 percentage point no matter the result.

Narratives surrounding playoff heroes, chokers or disappointments take on a new meaning when so much of the result is dependent on highly variant success from distance.

Based on Second Spectrum’s shot quality metrics, the Milwaukee Bucks’ 3s in their playoff losses were only 1 percentage point worse compared to their wins, based on expected eFG. But the Bucks actually shot 6 percentage points worse than expected on average in their five losses. Call it a lack of confidence or a total fluke. Call it whatever you want. But it’s enough to help explain why two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is heading home right now.

Postseason games have never been more about 3s — and less about everything else — than they are right now.

When LeBron James won his first NBA championship in 2012, playoff scorers literally scored twice as many points in the paint as they did from 3-point range. Eight years later, we’re living in a world where 3-point shooters are more prolific.

It’s an incredible shift in a short time, driven by personnel changes, tactical adjustments and the basic analytical idea that 3 is greater than 2. Also, keep in mind these wild 2020 numbers are happening without the Golden State Warriors playing postseason ball. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson aren’t logging bubble minutes. Yet even without the Splash Brothers, this year’s playoffs are more likely than ever to include the kinds of massive 3-point shooting differential the Dubs made famous.

As of Tuesday’s games, 39% of this year’s 56 playoff outcomes have included a 3-point scoring differential of at least 18 points — by far the highest such share on record. It’s yet another sign of how much getting hot from long range matters.

When the Rockets beat the Thunder in Game 5 of their first-round series this year, they outscored OKC 57-21 from downtown in an easy win. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that teams who destroy their opponents from downtown win more than they lose. Of the 22 teams who have outscored their opponents by 18 or more points this postseason, only four have lost the game.

Yet it helps make the stakes even more clear: Make your 3s or watch your season come crumbling to dust.

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