OAKLAND — Time to update that old aphorism, “Live by the three, die by the three.”
Let’s be clear: No team is going to win a championship strictly shooting from long range, and no team is going to win a championship with a one-dimensional offense of any kind.
But save your insults; three-point shooting is no longer a mere offensive gimmick. Not in the hands—and supple fingertips and wrists—of the Golden State Warriors.
If the Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies proved anything in their second-round NBA playoff series opener, it's that big men who own the paint don't have an obvious advantage over littler men who own the arc.
Let’s be clear about this, too: The Warriors were not anywhere near their best against the Grizzlies on Sunday. Blame it on a full week off since sweeping the New Orleans Pelicans, or the atypical 12:30 p.m. start or the Grizzlies’ vaunted defense.
But a Golden State offense that absolutely purrs at times hacked up a fair share of hairballs in the form of one-man dribbling forays to nowhere and passes into oblivion.
“You can’t just make careless plays and I thought we made too many of those, especially early,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
Normally, that’s what you hear from a coach who has lost a playoff game. Kerr won by 15 and the game was never really in doubt. Superfan Jimmy Goldstein actually termed it “boring” afterward. It’s a big reason the bookmakers in Las Vegas have the Warriors as the odds-on favorite to win it all—even when they don’t play particularly well, they have a not-so-secret weapon that trumps all: The Three Ball.
The Grizzlies’ Tony Allen tried to suggest otherwise.
“If we take care of the ball and boards, it’s a different game,” he said.
Then he scanned the box score, seeking confirmation. Only he couldn’t find it. The teams were dead even in steals (13), offensive rebounds (seven) and turnovers (15), and Memphis actually outscored the Warriors 17-10 in free throws.
Someone mentioned a disparity in three-pointers and Allen began to shake his head, then stopped. The Warriors made 13 of 28. The Grizzlies made 3 of 12, with makes No. 1 and No. 3 spaced so far apart they were nearly meaningless in the context of the game: They were the first and last points.
“Some of those offensive rebounds and turnovers led to those threes,” Allen said.
Some. Not all. The Warriors have too many quality three-point shooters for anyone to think they can be stopped from taking and making them. They also have too many of those self-same shooters who can attack off the dribble—Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green—that if you close out on them at the three-point line, they’re headed for the rim.
“It makes them tough to guard,” admitted the Grizzlies’ Courtney Lee.
The Warriors, of course, have been making a case for The Power of the Three all season. Sunday’s 101-86 win for a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven second-round series was simply their latest exhibit.
It’s perfectly understandable that Allen wants to believe turnovers and offensive rebounds decided the outcome. Those are elements Memphis can control or at least improve on if point guard Mike Conley recovers from the broken bones in his face to take part in the series. What Conley won’t make an appreciable impact on is the wide disparity in three-point proficiency.
That’s baked into the two teams’ respective DNAs. And that’s why it is reasonable to believe the Warriors could make as short work of the Grizzlies as they did of the Pelicans.
“We have to make it a threat and shoot it with confidence,” Nick Calathes, who has been filling in for Conley, said of the Grizzlies’ three-point shooting.
It’s not just that the Warriors shoot threes and the Grizzlies, by and large, don’t or can’t. Threes energize the Oracle Arena almost like nothing else. When Curry came down the floor and launched his first three on the break, the entire crowd rose to its feet along with the flight of the ball, 20,000 pairs of lungs audibly inhaling.
Every time the Warriors’ sloppiness opened the door and the Grizzlies threatened, three-balls erased the mess and widened the lead. After trailing by as many as 16 in the second quarter, Memphis closed to within six. Two threes by Curry in less than 24 seconds ended that. Three empty possessions—a turnover and two missed shots—allowed Memphis to get within 14. A pull-up 28-footer by Thompson ended that.
“Their crowd is thirsty for threes,” said Lee. “It’s their home-run play. Their fans love it.”
It also matters who is shooting them. Having a post presence surrounded by an umbrella of three-point shooters has been in the league’s book of team-building blueprints for several decades now. The difference with the Warriors is that they have no offensive post presence. The first and only back-to-the-basket maneuver on the block came in the third quarter when David Lee—remember him?—made a four-minute cameo because of foul trouble.
The Warriors' most vital offensive big man is the one who supplanted Lee at power forward, 6’7” Green. He tied Curry—you know, one of the Splash Brothers and the presumptive league MVP, according to multiple reports Sunday—as the game’s best and most prolific three-point shooter. Green took half of his eight in the first six minutes of the game and made three, staking the Warriors to a lead they would not relinquish.
Name another team that would have its power forward shoot that many threes that often and early in a game. You can’t. But it’s out of the smoke-em-if-you-got-em school. Having Green shoot early and often from long range was wise. Although both teams said the game was not as physical as they expected, Green did the vast majority of his scoring in the first quarter (11 of 16 points), presumably before his legs paid the toll of defending the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph down low.
In all, seven Warriors shot a three Sunday, including all five starters. Six made at least one.
“When those shots aren’t falling, it will go back in our favor,” Lee said. “When they’re falling, it’s tough.”
An offense cannot live by the post-up alone. Live by the three, thrive by the three. Words to live by. New words.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.