Those notable names of the past, the ones still insisting that NBA playoff offenses must pound the ball inside, have been awfully quiet this week.
Perhaps they’ve finally come to accept that the days of packing the paint are over. In this generation, offense is predicated on space, passing and plenty of 3-point shooting.
Never has that been more apparent than in these playoffs.
The four remaining teams — Golden State, Houston, Cleveland and Atlanta — are among the five teams that made at least 10 3-pointers per game during the regular season. The fifth team, the Los Angeles Clippers, was the last to get knocked out in the second round, losing at Houston in Game 7.
“It’s funny that we’re facing the Rockets, because throughout the year the so-called critics and experts would contemplate our style of play and poke at it and think, ‘Oh, both are finesse teams. They shoot a lot of 3s. Don’t really know if that lasts in the playoffs,'” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “Now look at us. We’re both playing each other for the Finals. It’s pretty cool to see how the game has gone that way.”
Relying on 3-pointers is not exactly a new concept. But the perception of the 3-point line, which was widely viewed as a gimmick when it was adopted by the NBA in the 1979-80 season, has changed as teams win titles in large part because of it.
San Antonio led the league at 39.7 percent shooting from 3-point range last season. In the NBA Finals, the Spurs shot a scorching 47 percent from beyond the arc to dethrone the two-time champion Miami Heat — who ranked second the year before at 39.6 percent from deep.
“You have to have a combination of 3-point shooting and great defense,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s been the formula the last few years. All those teams defended really well, made 3s. You’ve got to be healthy and you’ve got to be clicking and playing well, but the 3 is a huge part of the game.”
There is still a vocal minority who question whether that’s a winning formula.
Hall of Fame player and outspoken TNT analyst Charles Barkley has been leading the charge for years. He said before the playoffs that “jump-shooting teams” can’t win championships.
“I like teams that are built inside-out,” the former power forward said.
New York Knicks President Phil Jackson, who won 11 titles as a coach, sent out a pair of charged Twitter posts on the topic last week when the Rockets, Warriors and Cavaliers all trailed in their second-round series. Jackson asked NBA analysts to “give me some diagnostics” on how 3-point oriented teams were faring in the playoffs.
As quick as a 3-point burst, those opinions have been proven wrong.
The Warriors lead the Rockets 2-0 in the Western Conference finals, which resumes Saturday in Houston. The Cavaliers head into Friday night’s game at Atlanta with a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
“These four teams, I think it’s a credit to each of their guys’ ability to make shots. In this case, 3s,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Whatever it is, however your team is built, you have to do it well in the playoffs, and that’s the challenge for all of us in our league.”
None of the final four are about force. Instead, they’re about finesse — cutting, passing and making shots from long range.
Golden State is led by NBA MVP Stephen Curry, who eclipsed his own league record for most 3-pointers in a season, hitting 286 from long range. Thompson, his backcourt mate and fellow “Splash Brother,” finished second with 239. And the Rockets attempted 2,680 3-pointers in the regular season, the most in NBA history.
But there’s still merit to those who believe shooting too many 3-pointers can get you beat. Philadelphia, Detroit and Denver ranked in the top half of the league in attempts, and they ended up in the draft lottery.
The Hawks also went 4 for 23 from 3-point range in their 97-89 loss to Cleveland in Game 1 as they struggled to get the ball inside. Then again, J.R. Smith made 8 of 12 3s to pace the Cavs.
For the remaining playoff teams, just as important as their 3-point shooting is their passing. All four ranked in the top 10 in assists during the regular season, with the Warriors (27.4) and Hawks (25.7) leading the way per game.
Where those passes end up is just as critical. Rockets coach Kevin McHale encourages players to shoot 3-pointers instead of long jumpers inside the arc. After all, it’s simple math.
“You step back that much and you get 3 for it,” McHale said, putting up his hands a few feet apart to demonstrate.
But McHale also doesn’t think playing inside and shooting 3s are mutually exclusive. He wants his team to play inside-out, believing that more penetration collapses defenses and leads to open 3-point looks.
“The two better shots than the 3,” McHale said, “are a dunk and a free throw.”
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP
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