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Boston and the 3-Point Shot

 

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.

Twitter: @MichaelVPina
  • Phil

    For a team who's embraced advanced statistics enough to allow it to seep into their play on the court (fouling up 3 with a few seconds left, going for 2 for 1s,) it's surprising how little they value 3s, specifically from the corner. I expect Bradley to improve that some, but I agree with the premise here that they just need to look for more in general.

    I'd like to think that the Celtics are aware that the ceiling of the long two volume approach is below where they want to go, and maybe that leads to a schematic change now that the guard rotation should work itself out. Definitely something to watch going forward.

    • michaelpina

      Well said, Phil.

  • Anthony

    Aren't those fairly obvious points? The past couple of years, outside of Ray and Pierce, the roster hasn't had great or good 3pt shooters. The #s were higher in 2008 becuz they had Posey and Eddie House and in 2010 when they had Nate and Sheed.

    Those # should definitely pick as CLee is playing with more confidence and JET's struggles can't continue forever, can it?

    • Sophomore

      They're not obvious points. And if players aren't attempting 3s, that goes beyond a lack of confidence from the player – when you have players like Lee and Terry, who have a long track record as 3-point shooters, it's the coaches' job to keep the attempts coming. Good piece!

      • Bill

        Like that Sophomore.

  • Keith

    44% from long 2 is equivalent (mathematically) to 29-30% on 3. So, seems obvious that you go for the 3s. But…. the long 2 comes easier in the flow of the offense, and have less devastating consequences on a miss. Missed long 3s lead to long rebounds lead to fast breaks for the bad guys. Fast breaks are something the Cs desperately try to prevent (see no offensive rebounds). I think Doc wouldn't mind more open 3s off better ball movement, but don't think he's going to tweak the offense to try to generate them specifically. If anything, encouraging that ball movement will organically result in better shots all around – 2s and 3s – and that should be the focus.

    • Josh_5

      Great point Keith. I never thought of that when dissecting this article. I pose this general question then: Would Doc really alter his offensive game plan (i.e. taking mid-long 2's instead of 3's to avoid long rebounds for the opponent) just to preserve his defensive game plan (i.e getting back on defense and preventing transition points)?? If Keith is onto something, does defense trump offense??

      • Phil

        I think that final question gets into the law of diminishing returns. It's been more prominent lately with offensive rebounding, but it applies here. Ignoring offensive rebounding may help the defense at expense of second chance points, but if you save 2 extra points per 100 possessions in transition defense while giving up ~5 points in offensive rebounding, you're better off going for the offensive rebounds. It can be hard to stomach the defensive breakdowns though (think the start of the Houston game; they tried going for offensive boards and got torched in transition.) You have to eventually figure it out if you want to play your best though.

        I have a very hard time believing that adding a league average 3pt attack would even be close to cancelled out by transition defense though. You can do other stuff and still get back in transition, just look at our old friend Thibs in Chicago.

        • Keith

          Yep, I agree. I don't think you shun 3s soley for transition D, just mentioning it as something that gets overlooked and makes the math not as glaringly obvious to chuck 3s.

          My take is you don't necessarily alter the offense in either way – you play to your strengths and what the defense gives you. So, I don't think Doc is gonna force the 3s when the long 2s are what we can get and they go in at a pretty decent rate. It's not like the goal of the offense is long 2s (tho, it seems like it at times…), it's what we can get easy as a 2nd/3rd option. I prefer more motion/ball movement than people camping out at the 3 point line. If we make the extra pass to PP/Bradley/JET/Lee at the 3, great. If it swings to KGRondoBassSully for a long 2, great. Green can do either really.

          • Phil

            I agree with a lot of what you're saying, but I do think there's some schematic issues that have popped up over the first couple of months involving Rondo. Part of the appeal of Rondo as a pass first PG is that he can get everyone 'their' shot. Well, if everyone's shot is a long 2, you don't need Rondo to get them that. Pierce can dribble to the FT line and pass it to KG with very little effort for the same 18 footer that Rondo could.

            So what's the solution there? The way I see it, either tailor the offense to set up better looks (3s or something near the basket,) playing off of Rondo's brilliant passing game, or wait for playoff Rondo to show up and for him to shoulder a bigger scoring load. I don't think you can have a top 15 offense playing the same style (Rondo assisting on long 2s) with this version of Rondo, extra pass or not. Rondo's just not a big enough weapon by himself.

            Now I'm also willing to hold off on any judgements on the offense as a whole until I see Bradley back at 100%, because he's the classic rim/3 guy that needs Rondo to set him up for his efficient looks. Sharing the floor with a lineup like KG/Bass/Pierce/Terry, I think Rondo's skillset is largely wasted, but that might change just by switching out Terry, and this whole post would be moot.

          • Keith

            I can agree with that to some extent. I think Terry is a little wasted with Rondo (instead of vice versa – tho that's splitting hairs…). Rondo has the ball too much to take advantage of Terry's skills as a creator. Instead Doc has him running around screens like Ray. I think that lack of ball in his hands is Terry's big problem this year. And why other offensive players struggle a little in our system. I do think JET should almost be relegated to those 10-15 min Rondo's not in and told to go nuts (like the way we use Barbosa) and then it's Bradley or Lee the rest of the time with Rondo.

            I love me some playoff Rondo, and I think that's where his value really shines. Not just cuz he scores more, but because defenses are better, and its harder for normal players to get their shots. That's where you really need someone like Rondo to get everyone in the rights spots and create for others – even those long 2s are hard to come by. During the regular season, sure we can run things thru PP, KG, JET, Lee, even Sully probably and just do what we did against the Knicks. But that stuff isn't as easy to come by in the playoffs. That's where a Rondo puts you over the top. Tho, I will admit that the Knicks game was close to 1st round playoff intensity, I still think Rondo gives you that extra level you need come playoff time.

            Also, I don't think any point guard by himself gets open 3s directly. It's all about ball reversal. The point can penetrate and kick, but somebody else has to swing it. Rarely is the guy that gets the 3 the one whose man helps on the penetration and its one pass and boom.

            The two things I'd change about Rondo are (both channeling my inner Tommy): 1) never, never, never walk the ball upcourt and 2) Attack the hoop more.
            I think Doc should play him 35 min or less and he would be able to do that in the reg. season. He already does it (except 1) for the most part in the playoffs.

  • hydrofluoric

    Underrated I think is the fact that Jet and Lee have both seemingly missed a veritable truckload of open corner 3s this year, and now they're choosing to pass those shots up. Lee is now opting for the dribble-drive-pullup-from-20-feet over the 25-foot jumper, and honestly he appears a bit better because of it. It's technically a less efficient shot, but I think that Lee uses the eye test and finds what I find – that he's not making those 3s like he should be according to his career billing.

  • mattycelts

    This is a little off topic, but was it just me or did the Celtics offense flow really well against the Knicks, and did this have anything to do with the absence of Rondo. No question Rondo does great things on the court, but are the other guys more tentative when he's out there? The ball movement just seemed so much better and other guys were more willing to attack, like Jeff Green, who actually seemed to have a pulse for once.

    Also, what the heck happened to Jason Terry's jump shot? This is not the guy I watched in Dallas for the past several years.

    • Sophomore

      I agree with you. I know it's only the eyeball test, and maybe it would break down if you really looked at the numbers, but I see the same thing. Rondo has exceptional ability when he's zoned in, but possession after possession, he seems to hold the ball a long time and it looks like other players sometimes go to sleep; I'm not only thinking of the Knicks game, but the second quarter of the Nets game on Xmas, when the team played beautiful basketball with Rondo on the bench. Other players on the team – Pierce and Garnett especially – can pass and move without the ball. And the fact is that for as long as Rondo's been the quarterback of this team, its offense has been mediocre to poor.

      So, I know it's heresy, but I've wondered whether we'd be better off offering Rondo and, say Bass for a very good player at the 4 or 5 plus a league-average PG. With Rondo in the mix, a big like Millsap or Varejao could be part of what we get back (of course, for V, you'd need a third team because Cleveland isn't looking for a PG). I think that Celtics team could be better than this one.

      • Phil

        Rondo's play has been a big time storyline to me this year, and it certainly hasn't been an encouraging one. The fact is that Rondo's not an effective scorer by himself, even with the addition of a reliable ~16 footer. Teams will gladly let him take that shot, and it's nearly impossible to make them truly pay for it without being Ray Allen or Steph Curry.

        You could've foreseen that going into the year though, the hope was that Rondo's solid offensive game would allow him to set up high percentage looks for everyone else, but the numbers don't back that up. With Rondo off the court, the team's assist rate goes way down… but their overall efficiency goes up. This tells me that Rondo's not setting them up for the good looks that I recall him doing in the past. Teams are trying to get you to take long twos; passing to Brandon Bass for a semi-contested 18 footer might count as an assist, but it's not a good shot.

        So where do we go from that? I don't know. I'm willing to write off the first part of the season as general malaise if Rondo picks his game up with the rest of the team over the next month. Bradley's return has the biggest direct effect on Rondo after all. I'm having a hard time shaking the idea that this team needs a PG more geared towards scoring though. On a team shooting a high volume of two pointers (as the article points out,) you don't need a pass first PG. You can get those looks whenever you want.

      • Phil

        As far as trades, I'd be lying if I said Cousins/Isaiah Thomas/contract to make the deal work for Rondo/maybe Fab? deal didn't intrigue me. I really like Thomas' game, but I'm not sure he fits in that well with the Celtics. A Thomas/Bradley backcourt borders on unplayable small, and I don't know how Doc would be with handing the keys to a second year second round pick. Bill Simmons had a three teamer with Toronto a while ago that had Cousins and Lowry coming into Boston for Rondo and Lee going out, and that seems a lot better for the now.

        The problem with any Rondo trade is that you need inside locker room information that I'm sure none of us have. How would the team respond to any trade involving him? If they fold like they did after the Perk deal, it doesn't really matter how much better the team theoretically would be.

        I'd think it's Cousins or no one for Rondo though. You don't trade Rondo for a 30 year old oft injured energy PF.

        • Sophomore

          And, down goes Varejao, as if to prove your point…

  • CG12

    Sooo, anybody still think we should blow this thing up? Just wondering. This is why Danny Ainge is GM, Doc Rivers is coach, and you are not.

    • The Cardinal

      I think we should still be willing to trade for a legitimate, back-to-the basket, board crashing 4/5, 6'10" or taller big man if the opportunity arises. I think we should make Barbosa a permanent part of the rotation, even if it's at the expense of the two more highly touted additions. I think that anyone not named Rondo, Pierce or Garnett should be considered as potential bait depending on "who" is available (and please don't consider that as hating on Bradley, et al…I simply believe if you can get better, then you need to at least be willing to consider the possibility).

      I still don't see this team as presently constructed being a legitimate title contender. Without a legitimate low post presence and because of the tendencies as stated in this article, I don't think we can get out of the East, but just like the saying about buttholes and opinions…Regardless, I'm still a fan, I still wanna see a championship, and if this team as presently constructed can win one, then I will gladly accept the label of pessimistic fool!

      • CG12

        I would love to acquire a good-quality center, but they are rare and difficult to obtain. My feeling is that this team, as currently constituted, has the pieces necessary to be considered a genuine title contender. I think that we need to see some progress with integrating some of the new guys, as well as some sustained success, but what we have seen the last three games tells us that this team his the mojo to make a deep play-off run. Getting all of the players lined up in their intended role makes a huge difference. When Wilcox gets back, the JET-Lee-Green-Sullinger-Wilcox bench has potential to be an absolute monster against most team's second units.

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