Before the Bulls-Celtics series, Matt “Kevin” McHale of By the Horns asked me why the Celtics had been scoring about four points more per game and shooting better without Kevin Garnett in the line-up. I answered that I suspected it was random statistical noise, and that it could not be possible that Boston’s offense functioned better without one of the great mid-range shooters in the NBA’s history–and one of its best big man passers.
But I wanted to investigate further, so I looked at the 22 regular season games KG missed after hurting his knee in Utah on Feb. 19. Here’s what I found:
Overall Regular Season KG-less
Offensive Efficiency 110.5 114.9
Two-point FGs 51% (60.7 attempts/g) 51% (60.3 attempts/g)
Three-point FGs 39.7% (16.5 attempts/g) 43.2% (17.0 attempts/g)
FTAs/game 25.3 25
That 114.9 offensive efficiency (2,261 points on about 1,967 possessions) would have led the entire NBA this season, and the C’s accomplished it without playing at a faster pace; the team averaged about 90 possessions per game in KG’s absence, about the same as their overall mark. Only five teams have put up higher season-long offensive ratings than 114.9 since 1980, the most recent being the ’95-96 Bulls, who were sort of a decent team.
But as you can see, the offensive improvement was fueled entirely by a ridiculously accurate stretch of three-point shooting. That accuracy rate is unsustainable over a full season. No team has ever hit 43 percent of its three-pointers over 82 games, and only seven have cracked the 40 percent barrier since the league instituted the three-point shot in 1979-80, according to Basketball Reference.
Side note: I encourage you to click on that link. Two things I learned from that data sort:
1) The ’97 Charlotte Hornets were by far the most accurate three-point shooting team of all-time. They hit 42.8 percent of their threes, led by Glen Rice (an insane 47 percent) and Dell Curry (43 percent). No team is within two percentage points of them.
2) This season’s Celtics were actually the 12th-best three-point shooting team in NBA history, going by shooting percentage only.
Let’s get back to ’08-09 and look at how each of the Celtics best three-point shooters changed their games when KG was out.
3’s With KG 3’s w/o KG
Ray Allen: 40%, 6.1 attempts/g 42%, 7.2 attempts/g
Paul Pierce: 39%, 3.5 attempts/g 39%, 4.4 attempts/g
Eddie House: 42%, 4.2 attempts/g 50%, 4.3 attempts/g
So each of the C’s main three-point shooters attempted more threes without KG and either made them at their normal rate (Pierce), improved slightly (Allen) or went off-the-charts insane (House).
It probably helped that those 22 games included nine against teams in the NBA’s bottom 10 in opponents’ three-point shooting percentage, including seven combined against Miami, New Jersey, Phoenix and Washington, the 2nd-5th worst teams in the league at guarding the three (at least in terms of opponents’ percentage). In those eight games, the C’s shot 57-of-116 from deep–49 percent.
Obviously this could not last, and it didn’t. Details after the jump.
Actually, as I’ve noted before, it did last through the Bulls series, when the Celtics nearly maintained their excellent regular-season offensive efficiency rating by hitting 42 percent of three-pointers. But then they ran into the league’s best defense, and their offense fell apart. They hit only 29 percent of their threes, and their offensive rating dropped to 104–a tad worse than what the Bobcats (27th in offensive efficiency) did over the full season.
Unless someone can come up with a convincing explanation for why Kevin Garnett’s absence would lead to improved three-point shooting, I’m sticking by my conclusion that this 22-game improvement in offensive efficiency was indeed just a random statistical blip. Ray Allen got hot, Eddie House got hotter and the C’s faced a string of teams that did not guard the three well.
I’d be interested to hear other explanations if people have them, though.