The Power of Three

With the conference finals underway, it would be easy to discuss the matchups:  “How will Phoenix handle the Laker bigs?  Will Orlando be able to contain Rajon Rondo?  How will Craig Sager’s socks match up with the pocket square and tie?” (Apologies to Keyshawn Johnson.) Such questions are important, but let’s focus on one aspect of the game that has undeniably aided two of the four teams in getting this far: the three pointer.

Both the Lakers and Celtics are playing great basketball.  However, it’s been the play of the Magic and Suns during the first two rounds that has gotten people (meaning me) buzzing.  It’s all in the way that they score.  For Phoenix and Orlando, it’s quite simple: make threes, they win.  Miss them and they lose.

When these two teams are rolling, they set up their shooters in very different ways.  Orlando surrounds Dwight Howard with shooters at every position so that the moment he is double-teamed he simply kicks out for an open shot.  Meanwhile, the Suns run three basic plays: the fast-break-take-whatever-shot-is-there, the pick and roll with Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, or the drive and dish for a…you guessed it, three pointer.

Can't shoot threes? Here's how Stan feels about that.

Why is this important?  In their 23 losses this year, Orlando shot 32.2% for three.  In their 59 wins? 39.7%. When a team averages a league-high 27.3 three point attempts per game, those misses add up in the form of opponent possessions. Meanwhile the Suns, taking 21.6 per game show a greater disparity by posting 43.6% in 54 wins and 36.6% in 28 losses.  Suddenly those 5-22 Game 1 performances (and losses) by both teams take on a whole new meaning.  The appropriate expression to use here would be that they, “live and die by the three”.

Let’s look at each team individually, starting with the Magic.  If you can’t hit threes or you’re not subbing in for Superman, you’re not playing. (I’m looking at you, Brandon Bass.)  As head coach Stan Van Gundy explains, “We don’t really have much of an interest, especially in perimeter players, who can’t shoot the ball.”

Touché.

Half the team shot 37% or better from beyond the arc during the season, and 65% of its total shots were jumpers.  So the most talented center (arguably) in the league attempts only 10.2 shots per game?  Absolutely!  That’s why the Magic set a regular season record for threes made – 841 to be exact – with an average of 10.26 makes per game.  That’s why they destroyed the Hawks in game 4 of the conference semi-finals with a 16-37 performance from long range.

And then there is the Suns.  This is a team that took 67% of its shots as jumpers and hit 41.3% of its threes during the season.  It’s normal to see the Suns coming off a defensive stop or run a fast break by quickly pushing the ball up court only to launch a trifecta before everyone has crossed half-court.  For other teams that might be a bad shot, but it’s exactly what this Phoenix team was built to do.

Let’s look at some numbers:

07-08:     2-31               22%
08-09:     29-74            39.2%
09-10:     120-262        45.8%

Notice anything different?  That’s Jared Dudley’s 3-point shooting career leading to this year.  His minutes have been pretty consistent too.

Here are some more:

05-06:     3-9                 33%
06-07:     3-18               16.7%
07-08:     3-10               30%
08-09:     11-33             33%
09-10:     172-392         43.9%

CHA-CHING! Congratulations Channing Frye, your career is relevant again!

Jason Richardson? 157 treys.  Steve Nash? 124. The Memphis Grizzlies made 344 as a TEAM.  Numbers such as these help explain why the Suns averaged the most points per game (110.23) in the league.  You see, scoring is particularly important to Phoenix – they were 52-18 during the regular season and 7-1 in the playoffs when reaching at least 100 points.  In order to score that much consistently, you’re going to have to hit a few long balls.
The downside?  If the shots aren’t falling, both teams instantly become vulnerable.

Channing Frye: the perfect system player.

On Sunday, the Magic didn’t hit a single three in the first half (a first for the team since February of 2008).  Orlando has had trouble all season making shots against Boston, a top-5 defense against the triple, because the Celtics are so aggressive around the perimeter and have the defense (hello, Rajon Rondo) to prevent Jameer Nelson from dribble penetrating for the dish.  [Editing note: Game 2? 7-18 3pt.  Loss.]  Still, the Magic have hit 56 more 3-pointers — a 168-point differential – than their opponents in these playoffs so far.  They will stick to their game plan for the rest of the post-season because all year they have shown a knack for making shots when they need to, killing rallies or starting their own.  Simply put, if Orlando makes their 3s, they will win the championship.

Meanwhile, Phoenix struggled against the Lakers’ length and the league’s number one rated three-point defense.  With the likes of Lamar Odom and Ron Artest able to guard Frye, Richardson, and Dudley, it didn’t matter if the Suns got by L.A.’s guards.  Stoudemire doesn’t tend to Hyperize against Gasol and Bynum inside the paint, so the Lakers could afford to stay out on the shooters.  The Suns are better at defense this year, but their strength is still scoring.  It will be very interesting to see how Phoenix adjusts in Game 2 to try and speed up the tempo and get open looks.

Should Phoenix and Orlando figure out how to get their opponents to play to into their strengths, it’s conceivable that they could end up facing each other in the Finals.  Can you imagine what that series would be like?  Mike Breen would sound like he’s narrating a Wild West shootout.  A combined average of 50 attempts from beyond the arc and 213 total points per game promises something very special.  However, they’re going to have to get past the Lakers and Celtics first.  For that to happen, they’re going to have to hit some threes.

Related posts:

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  2. Basketball Commentator Power Rankings 2010

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