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To 3 or not to 3: are the Celtics taking too many?

Is this style of play sustainable long term?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Boston Celtics
Marcus Smart rises up for a 3-pointer.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

If it feels like the Celtics are basically unbeatable when they consistently make 3-pointers, that’s because they have been to this point.

They’re 12-0 this season when shooting 40 percent or better from distance and 6-0 when making 20 or more. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. This is one of the best offenses in NBA history when everything is humming and shots are falling.

There’s just one problem, though. They haven’t shot 40 percent or better from 3 in December. In fact, they’re shooting just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this month, which has in large part led to a 4-5 record. They’ve shot 26 percent or lower in three of their last four games.

Of course, there are other factors at play as well, but the Celtics’ 3-point shooting is often a barometer for their success.

In October, they shot 39.9 percent en route to 16.2 made 3’s per game, 116.7 points per game and a 4-2 record. In November, they shot a sizzling 41.1 percent en route to 17.3 3’s made per game, 123.8 points per game and a 14-2 record.

In December, they’ve regressed to 13.6 made 3’s per game and 109.2 points per game.

So, what’s the problem? Why are they suddenly struggling in an area they excelled at through the first-month plus of the season?

Well, a lot of it boils down to shot selection, individual slumps and teams understanding their tendencies.

In November, 48.2 percent of their field goal attempts were 3-pointers and 41.8 percent of their points came from 3-pointers – both second in the NBA behind the Warriors. In December, 48.1 percent of their field goals attempted are 3-pointers, but just 37.2 percent of their points have come from 3’s.

In October, 89.7 percent of their 3’s made were assisted – fifth in the NBA. In November, that number dipped to 83.7 percent (16th). In December, it’s at 77.9 percent, which is 24th in the NBA.

In their last five games, 50 percent of their shots have been 3’s and 79.4 percent of their 3’s made have been assisted.

They’re shooting 39.3 percent on catch-and-shoot 3’s this season (a league-best 42.5 percent in November), which is the second-best mark in the NBA. In December, that number has decreased to 30.9. which is second-to-last in the league.

The Celtics are attempting 41.9 3’s per game on the season, which is second behind the Warriors. They’re 12-3 when they attempt more than their average and 10-6 when they attempt fewer than their average.

They’re only attempting slightly more 3’s in December (42.7) than in November (42) and October (39.9). So, the problem doesn’t appear to be volume. It appears to be shot selection and individual regression toward the mean.

Here’s how each key rotational player has shot from distance this season:

Jayson Tatum: October: 40.8 percent; November: 35.3 percent; December: 33.3 percent

Jaylen Brown: October: 34.1 percent; November: 33.3 percent; December: 34.2 percent

Malcolm Brogdon: October: 38.1 percent; November: 54 percent (lol); December: 40 percent

Marcus Smart: October: 22.2 percent; November 43.8 percent; December: 30.2 percent

Al Horford: October: 40 percent; November: 52.7 percent (double lol); December: 28.6 percent

Derrick White: October: 43.5 percent; November: 45.7 percent; December: 23.5 percent

Grant Williams: October: 66.7 percent (triple lol); November: 38.7 percent; December: 42.9 percent

Sam Hauser: October: 55.6 percent (you get the idea); November: 46.2 percent; December: 25.7 percent

Payton Pritchard: October: 50 percent; November: 38.7 percent; December: 16.7 percent

Tatum, Brogdon, Smart, Horford, White, Hauser and Pritchard are all shooting a lower percentage in December than they did in November. Batman doesn’t believe in regressing toward the mean.

Tatum, Brown, Smart, Horford, White, Hauser and Pritchard are all shooting lower than their career marks this month and should theoretically get back on track soon.

So, it’s fair to say that the Celtics are NOT attempting too many 3’s. They’re just not taking the right ones. If they get back to moving the ball with purpose and playing with the same vigor they did in November, those numbers will likely creep up in the coming weeks.

They’ll probably never shoot 41.1 percent from 3 as a team in the month again, and that’s OK. If they can live right around 37 or 38, that’ll be more than enough.

In the meantime, establishing more of a post presence as a team would go a long way. There will be nights when those shots don’t fall, and they need to be able to score in a variety of ways.

This is the definition of “live by the 3 and die by the 3,” but they have the personnel to live more than they die. They just need to regain their mojo and trust the style that helped them start the season in style.

If they take great shots, they can live with the results knowing that they gave themselves the best chance to win.

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