The Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors combined to attempt 86 3-pointers during Game 1 of The NBA Finals. Just about half of all shots came from deep, indicative of a league-wide trend over the last few seasons.
During the regular season, the Celtics took 42.5% of their attempts from deep, the eighth-highest across the league. Golden State was second with 45.6% bombing away from deep. Both teams have the personnel to make such a style work for them. The Splash Brothers, along with Jordan Poole and competent role players from deep, buoy the Warriors’ attack. Meanwhile, the Celtics really only play one guy (Robert Williams) who isn’t capable of stepping out and taking a triple.
The results of such an offensive emphasis are stark. We have seen more wild swings during games, more large leads being built, high potential for blowouts and some ferocious comebacks.
Game 1 provided a little bit of everything, producing highs and lows for the Celtics. While only trailing by four at the end of the first quarter, the Celtics let Warriors superstar Stephen Curry get open and hot early, making six 3-pointers in the opening frame.
Many of Curry’s looks were the result of Boston’s poor attention to detail and not adjusting for a new challenge in the superstar. Williams was consistently dropping back too far on ball screens, teammates miscommunicated in transition to leave Curry alone, and simply not crowding him enough on the ball. Against a shooting threat like Curry, the game can get out of hand quickly if he gets loose.
More importantly, the Celtics found themselves down 12 heading into the fourth quarter and got their own dose of heat stroke. Going 9-of-12 from deep in the corner, Boston turned in an unbelievable 40-16 final frame to storm back and take the game. They were taking many of the same shots they took in earlier portions -- they were just going in the clutch.
Derrick White and Al Horford carried the attack. Jaylen Brown drained two triples early. Payton Pritchard and Marcus Smart each got in on the action, and Smart’s back-to-back daggers put the Celtics up 14 with under two minutes remaining. It was a roller coaster of momentum, stymied by the onslaught in that final frame while the Warriors (just 2-for-8 from deep in the quarter) were ice cold.
Credit goes to Ime Udoka for the consistent messages around chipping away, belief and shot selection. When other teams get hot, the sideline commander does not overreact. He’ll tighten the screws on certain matchups (like with Curry) and challenge his squad to adjust individually. In his calm and competitive way, Udoka inspires the group to ride out the storm and simply wait for the shooting to regress.
On the other end of the floor, the Celtics under Udoka have been clearly alright with taking the first available open 3-pointer. Since everyone can shoot it, it isn’t a bad shot. He’s worked to get Derrick White’s confidence up, and White is thriving in the postseason. Horford is firing without hesitation. Everyone feels emboldened to shoot without fear of repercussion.
The restraint needed from a coach in those situations is massive, especially when the shots don’t really fall. Down late, we hear announcers talk a ton about the value of the “quick two." Old school coaches love to encourage players to chip away at the lead by aggressively attacking the basket.
Udoka’s strategy is much more even-keeled. If the Celtics are generating quality looks and they simply aren’t going in, there is no need to adjust the offense. The process is the right one, and with good shooters on the perimeter, the results will come around in time. Golden State’s defense is strong, but it isn’t impenetrable. They sell out on help near the rim and have weak points that can allow dribble penetration one-on-one. The ball decides from there who the open man is, finds him, and then the shot goes up without critique from the coach. There's no mention of “settling” for 3-pointers, no irritation by the lack of layups. Just a recognition that these are the shots that are open, so let’s go out and make them.
Basketball is a game of makes and misses. The hot team usually wins, and the hot team did win in Game 1. Both the Warriors and Celtics take a large number of shots from deep — both by choice and necessity, as the role players who shoot it and stand along the perimeter are the ones dared to score by the defenses. As The NBA Finals moves onward, remember that momentum can shift in an instant, that no lead is safe, and that no, the Celtics aren’t shooting it too much from deep.
They’re doing what wins games in the contemporary era.