PER Diem: May 14, 2009
The Celtics and Magic are good at shooting 3s, so why aren't they making any?
As Orlando and Boston resume their thrilling series with Thursday night's Game 6 in O-Town, we have two kinds of stories to track.
The first is the obvious, on-the-radar story about Dwight Howard's criticism of coach Stan Van Gundy and whether "Superman" will step up and prove himself deserving of the post touches he clamored for.
I've already said my piece about Howard. Of far greater intrigue to me now is the under-the-radar story: How come neither team can make a 3-pointer?
Two of the best outside-shooting teams in the league have spent five games flinging bricks from the perimeter -- both teams are shooting exactly 32.2 percent from downtown in the series, a mark that every team except Philadelphia exceeded in the regular season.
Here are John Hollinger's top five NBA observations for Thursday. Insider
- Melo's offensive game is improved
- Mild criticism of All-NBA selections
- Kudos to Doc's late-game strategy
- Why didn't Dallas play Bass more?
- Good fit for Sacto job: Westphal
Orlando's love affair with the long ball is well known; the Magic tied for the league lead during the regular season with 10 3-pointers per game. Less recognized, for some reason, is that Boston was the league's most accurate long-range outfit in the regular season, converting a sizzling 39.7 percent of shots from downtown.
In this series? Not so much. And as the series goes on, both teams are getting worse from long range. In Game 4 in Orlando, the two sides attempted 27 triples and made just six of them; they returned to Boston two nights later and went 11-for-40. Ironically, both games were won on outside shots, but that doesn't change the larger trend.
We should partly credit the two defenses. Orlando and Boston were first and second, respectively, in defensive efficiency during the regular season, and controlling the 3-point line undoubtedly has been a big part of the game plan for both sides. With two coaching staffs that have been experts in taking away opponents' strengths, the effect of great defense shouldn't be underestimated.
On the other hand, neither side defended the triple quite this well during the regular season. Orlando allowed 34.2 percent shooting from long range, and Boston 34.9 percent; both ranked among the five best teams in the league in this category. Yet those numbers came against ordinary opponents, not the best outside-shooting teams in the league, and even so, they didn't come close to matching the stifling 32.2 percent mark we've seen in this series.
For that matter, Boston played against another strong 3-point defense in the first round and had no similar problem. Chicago's 34.7 percent opponent 3-point percentage ranked fourth in the regular season, but the Celtics shot a spectacular 42.1 percent over the course of seven games to knock off the Bulls.
And, in the ultimate irony, the Magic played the league's worst 3-point shooting team, Philadelphia, in the first round before playing the best 3-point shooting team in Round 2. Guess which one shot better? Philly made 36.8 percent in six games against Orlando, but somehow, the Celtics often can't buy one from long range against the same opponent
So how's it happening?
In Boston's case, it really comes down to two players: Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. Rondo has taken the 3-pointer more willingly in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, but he needs to consider stopping -- he's missed all 10 attempts. Allen, more infamously, now is 5-for-29 from long range in the series after raining one 3 after another on the Bulls in the first round.
Allen's slump in particular has more than offset strong performances from three other players. Eddie House made nine of his first 12 long-range shots before the Magic put Courtney Lee on him the past two games; he didn't make a triple in either and attempted only two. (My new nickname for Lee is "Stucco" -- he's got House completely covered.) In addition to House, Paul Pierce is 6-of-13 from long range in the series, and, more surprisingly, Brian Scalabrine has been lights-out at 7-of-14.
Break it down, and you'll reach this discovery: Celtics not named Ray Allen are shooting 39.7 percent on 3s in this series -- exactly what Boston shot in the regular season -- meaning Orlando's hopes of curtailing Boston's 3-point game depend mainly on Allen's remaining ice-cold from outside -- not a comforting thought for Magic fans.
On the other side of the coin, Orlando has to be puzzled at its inability to beat Boston from long range when the Bulls (37.8 percent) had no such troubles. Chicago is a good outside-shooting team but not any better than the Magic -- both teams hit 38.1 percent in the regular season.
Additionally, Orlando's malaise is much more widespread than Boston's. Five Orlando players have at least 10 attempts in the series, and the only one to exceed his regular-season performance is J.J. Redick, and even he (38.1 percent versus 37.4 percent) hasn't exactly blown away his previous standard.
The two most glaringly poor performers have been Rafer Alston (3-for-18) and Mickael Pietrus (5-for-20). Alston made 33.8 percent in the regular season, and his problems aren't easily attributed to Boston's defense -- the Celtics are hardly bothering to cover him. Pietrus' issue, which I've discussed previously, appears to be mainly one of shot selection; he usually jacks up the first halfway-decent long-range look he gets.
But for the Magic, the 3-point slump is a much bigger deal, simply because it's a much larger part of their arsenal. And unlike Boston, it's an ongoing problem from the first round -- the Magic hit only 34.6 percent against the Sixers.
As a result, one has to conclude Boston has a leg up here. Boston's problems from long range are almost entirely attributable to one player, while Orlando's struggles have been a team-wide struggle dating to the start of the playoffs.
Either way, however, the odds say that both teams are long overdue to convert a high percentage of their 3-pointers. While everyone else eyes Howard, I'll be watching to see which side, if any, busts out of its slump first.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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