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Winning Without Threes

The Celtics beat the Magic on Sunday despite making just one three-pointer. How rare is that in the NBA? This season, teams sunk either one or zero three-pointers 57 times and went 17-40 in those games

As for the C’s, they’ve hit one or zero from deep just twice in the last two seasons combined–once in a January win at Orlando (in which they hit none) and again in a loss at Milwaukee in March. 

So Sunday’s win was a very, very rare thing for both Boston and the league in general. 

But Boston has managed to fare decently in games when the threes aren’t falling or they simply can’t get as many off as usual. Check out the C’s record in the following scenarios:

• When making 3 or fewer three-pointers: 11-5

• When making 25 percent or fewer of three-point attempts: 10-8

• When making 15 percent of fewer of three-point attempts: 3-2

• When attempting 10 or fewer threes: 8-1

That 8-1 number surprised me. Remember, Boston led the entire NBA in three-pointing at about 40 percent, though they were only 21st in total attempts at about 16.5 per game. 

And, sure enough, I crunched the numbers and found out that, league-wide, teams went just 87-102 when they attempted 10 or fewer three-pointers

So, something about the Celtics makes them uniquely suited–at least relative to the rest of the league–to pulling out wins when they don’t hit three-pointers. I suspect that something is what the old-timers called “defense.” (Speaking of defense, check out the games in which Boston attempted 10 or fewer threes this season and compare it to the team rankings in fewest opponent three-point attempts. Five of those nine games came against Orlando, San Antonio and Detroit, the three teams that allowed opponents to chuck the fewest threes. Two more were against Dallas and Chicago, numbers six and seven, respectively).

Of course, it does make life easier if you shoot 9-of-20 from deep, as the C’s did in Game 2 against Orlando. 

Speaking of Orlando, just for kicks, here are some Magic-related three-point scenario records. Keep in mind, Orlando attempts 26 threes per game, second-most in the league behind the Knicks.

• When hitting 25 percent or fewer of three-point attempts: 2-6

• When hitting 20 percent or fewer of three-point attempts: 1-4

• When hitting 34 percent or fewer of three-point attempts: 16-11

• When attempting 20 or fewer threes: 5-5

Orlando never attempted fewer than 18 in a game this season, so 20 is about as low as we can go. And, though the sample size is small, there appears to be some value in simply preventing Orlando from taking as many threes as they’d like. 

So far in this series, the defenses are basically winning the three-point battle. Orlando is taking 22.5 per game and hitting 34 percent; Boston is attempting 17.5 per game–slightly above their average–but hitting just 32 percent after torching the Bulls from deep (42 percent) in the first round. 

One good game from deep could swing this entire series. Two would win it.

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