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How the 3-Point Shot Has Changed NBA Playoff Basketball

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How the 3-Point Shot Has Changed NBA Playoff Basketball
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The 2012-13 NBA playoffs will serve as a crucial test case for determining the role and importance of the three-point shot as part of a championship strategy.

Fellow Bleacher Report contributor and renowned basketball blogger Jared Wade recently broke down, in rather intricate detail, how there might actually be more risk in not shooting threes than there is in jacking up long bombs during the regular season, at least as far as title contenders are concerned.  

But has the growing popularity of the three-pointer carried into the postseason? Are teams more reliant on perimeter shooting now than they were, say, 15 years ago? And has that shift changed the way that teams pursue titles once they've left the regular season behind?

Certainly, playoff squads no longer approach the three-point line with anything resembling the hesitancy that marked its early days in the 1980s. If anything, teams that tally single-digit attempts are far more the exception than the norm nowadays.

Since 1998—the first playoff year after the NBA quit its experiment with a shorter, 22-foot arc and returned the line to its original dimensions—only 13 of a possible 240 teams have averaged fewer than 10 three-point attempts per game in the playoffs. The 2007 Orlando Magic were the last postseason team to fit that bill, and that was shortly before Stan Van Gundy turned Dwight Howard and a platoon of perimeter marksmen into the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon's mid-1990s Houston Rockets.

Over that same span, the number of teams attempting at least 15 threes per game has increased considerably, to the point where the field of 16 regularly includes between 11 and 13 teams that fit into that category.

Granted, 15 three-pointers isn't a particularly impressive figure within the context of the modern game. League-wide, teams have averaged nearly 20 three-point attempts per game during the 2012-13 regular season, and the playoff average for three-pointers hasn't dipped below 15 since 2001.

Clearly, then, the three-pointer has become a much steadier staple of the average postseason offense over the last 15 years, in terms of both raw volume and percentage of field-goal attempts:

As well as the percentage of points derived from long range:

However, it's curious that, unlike the narrative of the three-point shot's exploding regular season, the shift in three-point popularity and importance during the postseason has been neither linear nor exponential in growth. If anything, the stats reveal short hills and shallow valleys rather than a steady, upward climb in its usage.

The data shows steady growth in three-point prolificacy from 1998 until 2003, followed by a dip in 2004 and a noticeable uptick after 2005.

Those changes make sense when you consider the NBA's institution of new regulations governing hand-checking and illegal defense in time for the 2004-05 season, the trends in the game that led to that alteration of the rule book, and the disparate ways in which coaches adjusted to and took advantage of the new rules thereafter.

Prior to 2004, NBA offenses had begun to suffer significantly as defensive schemes became smarter and more sophisticated. The institution of the defensive three-second rule and the legalization of contact in 2001 gave players, coaches and teams new license to make scoring a tougher task by both clogging the middle of the floor and bumping scorers on the perimeter. That encouraged players to jack up more threes, albeit only to a certain extent.

By 2004, defenses had become so dominant that the quality of play suffered, to the point where commissioner David Stern and the league powers-that-be felt the need to crack down on hand-checks and clarify some of their previous defensive edicts—all in service of opening up the game and making life easier on the offensive end.

As expected, there was a lag between the implementation of the new rules and their effects on the quality of play. But, shortly thereafter, teams figured out that perimeter play had its advantages, with Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns famously leading the way with their exciting (but abbreviated) postseason runs.

The increase in perimeter shooting that D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" offense sparked didn't continue unabated, though. Playoff three-point shooting dipped in 2008 and again after hitting a crescendo during the 2009 and 2010 playoffs. Predictably enough, three-point shooting took a back seat in 2012, along with most offensive metrics, following the lockout.

But, as mentioned earlier, there's nothing consistent about the shifts in three-point shooting during the playoffs that follows in step with the regular-season trend concerning long-range barrages. Of course, this may have everything to do with the fact that the samples yielded from the playoffs are smaller and skewed far more to reflect the habits of those teams that survive and advance further.

Which, furthermore, would suggest that the three-point shot has been slow to emerge as a consistently crucial weapon in the arsenal of the modern NBA champion. Between 1998 and 2009, the three-point shooting of title winners ebbed and flowed above and below the playoff-field average, as illustrated by several relevant metrics.

Since 2010, though, those who've hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy have been no worse than playoff-league average with regard to three-point attempts per game:

And percentage of points from three:

The 2010 Los Angeles Lakers weren't abnormally prolific from beyond the arc overall, and the 2012 Miami Heat didn't start to light it up from deep until the playoffs, when LeBron James' ascendancy and Chris Bosh's injury blew the door wide open for the team to adopt a perimeter-oriented, small-ball-centric style.

As Jared Wade pointed out, the 2011 Dallas Mavericks were the most three-point-reliant champion ever, at least as far as regular-season trends are concerned. Those habits carried right into the playoffs for the Mavs, wherein they ranked no worse than third in just about every noteworthy three-point shooting category while blowing away the league averages.

All eyes will be on the 2012-13 Miami Heat to see if the three-pointer is here to stay as a key ingredient of a championship offense.

Until recently, the offenses of title winners had been characterized by their ability to score down low in half-court sets. Basketball dogma dictated that those with the best back-to-the-basket big men would enjoy the most success and, conversely, that those without such gifted giants couldn't succeed at the highest level.

Focusing on post play certainly made (and, largely, still makes) sense. Dunks and layups will always be the highest-percentage shots in the game. Getting easy looks is even more paramount in the postseason, when the pace of play slows, defenses tighten and the value of each possession skyrockets.

But while D'Antoni's Suns could never quite take their paradigm-shifting, spread pick-and-roll style to championship heights, the Mavs and the Heat could and did. Miami appears poised to keep that roll going this spring, with an offense that ranks among the NBA's elite in terms of three-point attempts and percentage.

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Even so, three-point shooting alone clearly isn't enough to set champions apart from the pack. If that were the case, those Phoenix teams of old, with Steve Nash kicking the ball out to a brigade of long-range bombers, most likely would've hung at least one championship banner during their heyday.

What the 2011 Mavs and the 2012 Heat did that the run-and-gun Suns didn't do—and that nearly every champion in the modern era has done—is play top-notch defense out to the three-point line.

In fact, since 1998, only two champions (the 2000 Lakers and the 2005 Spurs) and four runners-up (the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers, the 2002 New Jersey Nets, the 2011 Heat and the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder) finished below playoff-league average in three-point field-goal defense. That's just six out of a possible 30 squads.

Interestingly enough, those 2005 Spurs were fortunate to catch the Suns before D'Antoni's system hit its three-point-shooting peak in the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio also caught a break by running into the offensively impotent Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals for what would become arguably the most unwatchable seven-game series of all time.

In the years since, no champion has defended the three at a below-average level, and the 2011 Heat and the 2012 Thunder were notably undone by their inability to cool off the opposition from deep.

The three-pointer, despite its pre-eminence as the symbol of basketball modernity, brings us right back to the same old adage that rings true across all major sports: defense wins championships.

The proliferation of three-point shooting has, in some ways, made NBA offenses tougher to stop. No longer can a team simply pack the paint to obstruct post players and slashers while all but ignoring that curved line that makes shots 50 percent more valuable.

Instead, the weaponization of the three-point shot has forced players and teams to defend more of the floor with greater vigor and coordination than ever before.

That's part of what makes today's elite defenses so impressive in their aptitude—that they're achieving their ends (i.e. disrupting opposing offenses) despite the continued stacking of odds against them, both from the league office at the top and from the changing culture of the game among coaches and players at the grassroots level.

For all the bluster about the revolution in offensive philosophy sparked by the long ball, what the three-point shot has done, above all else, is put a greater premium on top-notch defense that can cover ground more efficiently, particularly among those in hot pursuit of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

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