Through the last few years, as a majority of the NBA’s brainier organizations continue to drift towards a provocative dance with the decreasingly risky three-point shot, the Boston Celtics have fallen in love with—and are still happily married to—the mid-range jumper.
It’s become an interesting paradox: Boston is infatuated with what most believe to be the worst shot in basketball and (coincidentally?) they have an offense that’s constantly struggling, but their personnel is overloaded with players who’re more than capable of making the shot. Brandon Bass, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and (sometimes) Jared Sullinger are all above league averages for their position with the mid-range jump shot, and Bass, Garnett, and Rondo are elite.
According to Hoopdata.com, Boston’s 44.8% from 16-23 feet leads the league (while they’re taking the fifth most attempts). They’re also tops in the percentage of these shots that are assisted, which helps prove that these shots are coming from the team’s design and scheme. (For what it’s worth, basketball’s black cloud, aka the Washington Wizards, lead the league with 25.5 attempts from this area per game. The Celtics are at 22.5.)
But as the Celtics appear to be focusing on improving their offensive efficiency with the addition of several players who’ve proven they’re capable of hitting three-point shots on a consistent basis, doesn’t it feel like it’s time for the Celtics to change their strategy? In November the Celtics attempted 13.8 three-pointers per game, but last month they brought that figure up to 17.4, so we’ve actually seen an increase in three-point attempts as the season’s gone on. But that number still puts them as one of the bottom 10 teams in the league.
While it’s fair to counter that point by saying guys like Courtney Lee and Jason Terry haven’t been hitting the shots they were expected to, it’s just as legitimate to suggest they haven’t been given enough of an opportunity to excel at what they do best.
Last season Lee attempted a far above average 1.8 corner threes per game with the Houston Rockets, making 48.5% of them (Ray Allen made 48.3%). A career 38.3% shooter from behind the arc, Lee—far from a dependable starter with any of his three previous teams—has never attempted fewer than 3.4 three-pointers per 36 minutes. With the Celtics he’s taking 2.2 (down from 4.4 last year) and shooting 32%.
From the corner this year, Lee has been invisible, making just nine shots on 26 attempts. That’s three fewer makes than Rashard Lewis, who’s made an appearance in 17 of Miami’s 32 games.
Right now the Celtics rank 28th in the league in three-point rate, attempting .204 threes per field goal attempt. Last year they ranked 24th, with an even lower .194 threes per field goal attempt. In 2011 they ranked 27th. But in 2010 they were above league average with .228 threes per field goal attempt. That year, as you know, Boston went to the NBA Finals. In 2008, the year they won the title, they were also above average, taking 19.1 threes per game.
Instead of aligning themselves with a strategy all the league’s top offenses are trending towards, the Celtics are choosing to go against the grain. Another more specific example comes with how they’ve treated the corner three, as potent a shot as any.
Last season the Celtics attempted a below average number of corner three-pointers per game, but were the third most accurate team in the league (Thank you, Mr. Allen). This year not only are the Celtics utilizing the corner three-pointer at a lower rate than 2/3 of the league, but they’re making just 36.6% of them, also good for a bottom 10 ranking.
On threes launched above the break, only Chicago and Memphis attempt fewer per game. And neither team is close to matching the sharp-shooting personnel Boston has (the Bulls recent decision to sign the sharp-shooting Daequan Cook should surprise nobody).
How can the Celtics improve? Open three-pointers are created off ball penetration, drawing double teams, ball movement, and a combination of all three. Lacking a Carmelo Anthony/LeBron James caliber offensive player who consistently creates double teams from the post (although Pierce and Garnett can do this in certain match-ups), the Celtics have struggled to consistently find open shooters within their offense. But sometimes it just feels like they aren’t looking hard enough, deferring on good looks behind the arc.
Now that Bradley’s back, playing more three guard lineups could be an option; specifically Rondo, Bradley, and Lee, with Lee and Bradley spreading the floor in each corner. (In an incredibly small sample size, Bradley is utilizing the corner three with 1.3 attempts per game; for reference, Ray Allen is attempting 1.5.)
Another way is to simply make the shots they take. Paul Pierce is above his career average from behind the arc, but shooting just 3-17 from the corner (Serge Ibaka is 5-17), and leading the team in total three-point attempts per game—more than Terry, and over three times as many as Lee. Jeff Green has actually been a relative revelation from the corner, shooting 41.9% (with both a higher volume and more efficient rate than Ryan Anderson, arguably the league’s best overall three-point shooter right now).
Here are two sequences the Celtics would be wise to replicate as the season goes on; they both stem from Garnett kick-outs. They’re executed to perfection, lacking any desperation or necessity. Even if they didn’t go in, they get Lee wide open three-point opportunities, which can only help spread the floor and make everyone’s life that much easier.
Here’s a play from Boston’s recent showdown with New York. As soon as Pierce crosses mid-court, Garnett comes over to set a screen and force a switch. Now, instead of going one-on-one against his man, Pierce is facing off with Tyson Chandler, and Garnett has Carmelo Anthony on his hip. As soon as Garnett goes into his move towards the paint, Jason Kidd leaves Terry and crashes the paint to double.
J.R. Smith rotates over to cover Kidd’s man, and Terry quickly beats him off the dribble (as creative as he is on offense, Smith’s perimeter defense is horrid). While all this is going on, Bradley is reading the ball, moving along the sideline. He drifts back to the corner and with his man (Smith) out trying to contain Terry, he finds himself open for a great look.
Even though Bradley’s toe is on the line, the movement is designed to set up a corner three (something this team sorely needs to do more of). It’s become clear over the last few years that Boston’s overall offensive strategy could use some tweaking. Setting up more plays that create mismatches and result in wide open three-point shots for the likes of Lee, Bradley, Terry, Pierce, and Green should be seen as a positive step in the right direction.