While the series did not pan out to be as epic as many (like me) had hoped, this year’s NBA Finals offered plenty of fodder for fans and front offices alike to digest. Here, on the world’s biggest stage, we can see the dominant and successful trends of the day, pondering how our teams can get to the promised land.
While I am still processing the series, one aspect that immediately jumped out at me was the importance of three pointers. I’ll briefly depart from my normally stats-centric mindset and go purely from the eye-test: the ability of threes to start, continue, or end runs was unbelievable.
Basketball is and always will be a game of runs, and getting three points instead of two (a 50% increase) on a given shot is the glue that holds many of these runs together. A three, then a stop, then another three is a 6-0 run generated completely off of two shots. A five point lead can be cut to two in a second, which sure sounds a heck of a lot better mentally.
On the other side of the ball, if a team is rallying, and your team is faltering, a well-timed three can completely snuff out an opponent’s run. Boosting your lead from seven to 10 right as your opponent scraps their way back into contention can be just as damaging to their morale as it is helpful to yours. The stats have always backed up the importance of the three, but I truly appreciate how much they can do for a team’s psyche as well.
Luckily, the Trail Blazers have one of the game’s rising young snipers in a certain Damian Lillard. In only his second year, Lillard poured in 218 threes (2.66 per game) throughout the season – good for third in the league. Perhaps even more impressively, he hit them at a 39.4% clip. For comparison, this is equivalent to shooting 59.1% (0.394*1.5) on two-pointers, which would also be an incredible rate.
Lillard trailed only the Splash Bros out of Golden State in threes made – Stephen Curry (261 made) and Klay Thompson (223 made). In his second year, though, Curry only made 151 threes – good for 2.04 per game (taking games missed into account). Curry did shoot an astounding 44.2%, however, which is significantly ahead of where Lillard’s accuracy is now.
Curry will likely go down as one of the game’s great shooters, so while Lillard is not yet on his level, it is not anything to be down about. Even if Lillard never quite gets there (which isn’t to say that he can’t), what he is doing is still immensely impressive, and a huge part of the Trail Blazers’ success this year.
Lillard is the team’s primary ball-handler and second overall offensive option behind LaMarcus Aldridge. He is not a one-trick pony who specializes in threes – rather he is a basketball player who happens to be very good at threes. This ability allows him to occasionally play off the ball in more of a shooting guard role, conserving valuable energy while still being a threat to score.
This year, Lillard participated in a record number of All-Star Weekend events, made his first All-Star Game, made an All-NBA team, had the “0.9” shot, and hit a whole slew of other buzzer beaters. These flashier aspects of his season took a lot of the limelight, which is why I think his three-point proficiency, while acknowledged, received a comparatively lower amount of attention.
I’ll say it again – shooting 554 threes (second most in the NBA) and making 39.4% of them is incredible – don’t let comparisons to Curry’s historic, outlier-level shooting tell you otherwise. As NBA teams realize more and more that efficiency is the path to success these days, the three will only become more important.
The Spurs, this year’s NBA champions, made 55 threes during the Finals, averaging 11 a game. Prorated to an entire 82 game season, this would be 902 made threes. This year’s actual regular season leading team in threes made was the Houston Rockets, who made 779. Let that discrepancy sink in. Threes matter. A lot.
This is why it is so handy to have a ready-made three point assassin waiting – especially one who is constantly handling the ball. Lillard came into the league ready to shoot, and having that tool at his disposal has elevated his game to new heights. This is all in addition to the contributions of his backcourt partner in crime, Wesley Matthews, who made 201 threes himself (good for fifth in the league).
Adding Nicolas Batum into consideration gives the Trail Blazers three players in the top 25 by three pointers made. The Spurs were a well-oiled machine whose system was a lot more than threes, but after witnessing the momentous swings in this year’s Finals beatdown, it is safe to say that the three was a huge weapon for them. While the Trail Blazers have a lot of work to do in other areas, their three-point future should be safe for the time being.