The benefits of the 3-point shot haven’t been lost on recent NBA champions. Each of the last five title winners ranked inside the top-10 in made threes per game, stretching defenses and taking advantage of the extra points that prove more difficult to come by in the postseason.
Such prowess provides obvious benefits in success but equally impactful disadvantages on the other end of the spectrum.
The Cleveland Cavaliers nabbed their only win of the 2017 Finals by breaking the record for most threes in a Finals game. On the other hand, the 2018 Houston Rockets saw their chance at the championship round slip away as none of their 27 consecutive attempts found the bottom of the net in Game 7.
Only two teams sit ahead of the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference standings, the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors. Assuming the current playoff bracket holds to form and no monumental upsets materialize, Boston will have to go through both in a potential path to The Finals.
The reigning conference finals participants have utilized the 3-point shot to amass two of the league’s top-three records. Milwaukee ranks fourth in attempts and fifth in makes per game while the Raptors sit seventh and fourth in those categories respectively.
As close behind as they remain in the standings, the Celtics have lagged behind their contemporaries from behind the arc, ranking 14th in attempts and 12th in makes per game.
To emerge victorious against either Milwaukee or Toronto, that gap has to shrink. As the number show, keeping pace isn’t a viable option barring the accumulation of an extremely searing hot hand.
The more likely scenario is to close that space the way Brad Stevens-led teams always have: at the defensive end.
Since Stevens’ fist season in 2013-14, the Celtics have ranked no lower than sixth in opponents 3-point percentage, including third in 2019-20.
The switchable quartet of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Gordon Hayward all rank inside the top-50 in defensive win shares, mightily contributing to the stifling effort that has helped determine Boston’s fate.
The Celtics and Bucks played only twice in the regular season before the NBA was suspended. Milwaukee shot 35.6% from 3 all season. In their first meeting in October that Boston won in a comeback, they held the Bucks to 14-for-45 from behind the arc 31.1%). More recently in January, the Celtics lost in Milwaukee by 5 after the Bucks shot a blistering 16-for-31 from 3 (51.6%).
For a squad as three-centric as the Bucks — they rank fourth in percentage of shot totals from downtown — the split isn’t surprising. Ten of their 12 losses this season have come after failing to convert above their average percentage. Get them to struggle to knock down triples against a top-five offense as Boston has and the recipe for success is clear.
The Raptors exceeded their 37.1 percent mark in two of their three matchups against the Celtics, splitting both games.
That loss amid an 18-of-36 performance can only be described as an outlier. In just the second game of the season, more than half of Toronto’s total makes came from two of their three double-digit scorers — compared to six on the year. Boston, meanwhile, saw five cross the double-figure mark — with three dropping 20-plus — each hitting at least two triples.
Toronto only fell short of their season’s percentage on Christmas Day, where the absence of Pascal Siakam left a hole too big to overcome, resulting in an 8-for-23 performance.
Five games might not be enough to make any sweeping declarations, but these five are enough to pinpoint an area of significance for the Celtics to focus on in their potential playoff run. Limiting opponent’s 3-pointers ensures they’re not burned by their own mediocrity in that department. With the right personnel and track record to take on this task, success would bring Boston closer to a spot in The Finals.