Boston Celtics Must Use 3-Point Shot to Find Successful Offensive Attack
The shot concluded one of the more discombobulated sequences you’ll ever see a professional basketball team go through, with Jason Terry catching a desperate save attempt by Jared Sullinger at the right elbow, then spinning away from a defender, dribbling out with his back facing the basket, planting both feet behind the arc, and launching a shot with 20 seconds left on the shot clock in a 13-point game with over 10 minutes to play.
To repeat: that was Boston's only three-pointer. In today's league, the shot is less of a gamble than it is a necessary risk, and it's no coincidence that some of the league's best teams take (and make) a ton of them every night.
By now, everyone knows the Celtics are in love with the mid-range jumper, a supposed lost art that in recent years has assumed a more accurate label as basketball's least valuable scoring option. For the most part, Boston makes it work because they're loaded with guys who can regularly knock it down (Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Rajon Rondo).
Right now they're taking the fourth-most shots between 16 and 23 feet in the league while remaining the second-most accurate, per Hoopdata.com. The shot is useful and fits well with their personnel and within their system, but it's no three-pointer.
The Celtics are attempting just 13.8 threes per game through the season's first month, just ahead of the Chicago Bulls for second fewest in the league. In the last 11 years only five teams have averaged 14 or fewer three-point attempts per game and won at least 55 games (the 2010-11 Boston Celtics are one of them). Even more startling, only 33 teams finished with an even record or better.
Boston is shooting 33.9 percent on corner threes off only 63 attempts. The percentage is 26th in the league, and the attempts rank in the bottom third (behind the layup/dunk, a three-pointer from the corner is widely considered to be the best shot in basketball).
On above-the-break threes, they've attempted the third fewest in the league (ahead of Chicago and the Memphis Grizzlies), but rank fifth in percentage at 39 percent.
The lack of three-pointers isn't necessarily a new development for Boston—last year they averaged 15 per game and in 2011 it was 13.6—but five years ago, when they won the NBA championship, they jacked 19.8 threes a night. And in 2010, the last season they appeared in the Finals, they took 17.5.
Just like they have players who can knock down a mid-range jump shot, the Celtics boast more than a few guys who've mastered the three-pointer: Jason Terry is a career 38 percent sniper, Paul Pierce is connecting 41.2 percent on all long balls this season and Courtney Lee made nearly half of the 103 corner threes he attempted with the Rockets last year (absurdly accurate). The key is putting these players in positions behind the line where they can easily succeed.
So why don't the Celtics shoot more three-pointers? The explanation is a simple one: they struggle to create open looks.
Doc Rivers may be one of the three or four premier play designers in the league, but there's only so much a man can do with the personnel he has, and right now the Celtics only have two or three players capable of penetrating past an opponent's first line of defense: Rondo, Leandro Barbosa and Pierce—on a good night. That’s about it, and not having any more options here has been a huge problem.
Here's a clip that shows Pierce blowing by Kevin Durant and setting up Courtney Lee for an open shot. At 35 years old, it's an incredibly difficult play for him to make multiple times a game, especially because creating for others was never a strength for Pierce to begin with.
The Celtics also don't grab offensive rebounds. Defenses in the NBA have one objective: to stop an initial shot and then grab the rebound. Mayhem occurs when they fail to do so, and guys who are lingering on the perimeter more often than not find themselves wide open for kick outs.
This year a good chunk of Boston's shots from behind the arc have either come in transition or off a secondary fast break; quick, open attempts taken early in the shot clock with the defense caught off guard or out of position.
The primary distributor in these situations is Rondo (obviously), who creates tons of advantageous action with his ability to find open trailers and guys filling their respective lanes.
But transition threes are dependent on good defense, forcing turnovers and preventing an opponent from scoring. In order to create a more consistent alternative, a burden is placed on Rivers and his coaching staff to get guys like Terry, Pierce and Lee three-point shots in a more controlled environment.
Here's an example: a quick wrinkle off a Rondo/Kevin Garnett pick-and-roll. The action is specifically designed to get Terry a good three-point look. He gets it here because instead of rolling to the basket and looking for a lob, Garnett is specifically down there to set a screen on Terry's man.
Another example shows a side out of bounds play designed to eventually get Courtney Lee a wide open three against Utah's zone defense. The ball is quickly swung around the perimeter before getting back to Barbosa at the top of the key. Once this happens, Chris Wilcox dives through the lane with his hands up, drawing Derrick Favors into the paint and keeping him a good 10 feet away from Lee, who's barely moved since inbounding the ball.
It's early in the season, but so far several Celtics aren't hitting a good number on their threes. Jeff Green is at a useless 25 percent, and Lee, arguably the most disappointing offseason acquisition (Andrew Bynum aside) in the league, has made only five three-pointers and six free throws in 345 minutes. Both will get better, and the return of Avery Bradley (who shot 55.6 percent on corner threes last season) should help as we get into winter.
But the importance of the three ball can't be ignored; it's a vital part of the game, and those who don't take advantage are more likely than not to be left in the dust. If they want their season to end with an 18th title, the Boston Celtics need to utilize the three-point shot more than they're currently doing.
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