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Will the Celtics live and die by the three pointer?

Their worst shooting night of the season doomed the Celtics as Joe Mazzulla defended the decision to not pivot away from the shot. What if a similar night emerges in the playoffs?

NBA: New York Knicks knock Boston Celtics off the top Photo by Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

NEW YORK — A natural question emerged following the Celtics’ worst three-point shooting night of the season. Boston finished 1-for-12 in the first quarter, 2-for-19 in the first half and 9-for-42 in their loss to the Knicks. When asked if the team could’ve adjusted away from the three offensively. Joe Mazzulla brought the stats to back up the approach.

“(New York is) bottom five in the league in above the break threes given up,” he said. “If their #1 job is to protect the paint, what’s the plan on running into the paint? so can you get easy ones early in the shot clock off layups, cuts. But when you’re in that half court setting because of ... our fouling, because they made shots in the half court setting, you gotta take the ones that are there and a huge strength of ours is the ability to generate a really good open look. And so off the top of my head, I feel like every three we took was a good shooter and a good shot.”

It’s an expected response from a team that relies on the three to the degree that the Celtics do. After an extraordinarily poor shooting night, the refrain “we just missed shots” echoes across locker rooms. Jalen Brunson even repeated it, emphasizing that the Knicks caught a break against one of the league’s better offenses after they won, 109-94. It’s an easier excuse to accept after the final game and only loss of a three-game road trip, and a harder one to swallow after a Game 7 if the Celtics go cold over a smaller sample size in May.

The Rockets from 2018-21, this year’s struggling Warriors, the 2020 Mavericks, 2021 Trail Blazers, 2021 Jazz and the 2018-2020 Bucks, along with the 2021-2023 version of Milwaukee (not their 2021 title team) rank among the highest volume three-point shooting teams ever. Houston and the Bucks’ recent playoff burnouts call into question if high volume three-point shooting is to winning a championship. Only the Warriors did it.

Last year’s Celtics went to the Finals ninth in three-point volume trying 37.1 per game, compared to 42.1 (second) this year. The 2021 Bucks also ranked eighth with 37.1, the 2020 Lakers finished 23rd, and the 2019 Raptors shot the 11th-most.

Arguing against the approach in the regular season could be considered a little misguided. The 2022-23 Celtics own the fourth-best offensive rating (117.9) in NBA history despite their efficiency regressing to 37.7% (eighth) after starting the season 40% from deep through early December. Spacing helped Tatum generate 30.1 points and 4.7 assists per game on 46% shooting while Jaylen Brown matched his 70% efficiency at the rim and scored 26.5 PPG. Thursday’s win over the Pacers marked their 21st career game where they both reached 30 points simultaneously, and ninth this season.

The approach also befits a roster filled with tshooting personnel. Boston acquired Evan Fournier, a dubious fit, two years ago while starving for floor spacing. Now, Al Horford, Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams can all hit threes at high rates while defending adequately, allowing the Celtics to balance top-five offense with top-five defense. They covered so many bases, though vulnerabilities emerged since the hot start that pulled their offensive efficiency down to 15th in nearly three months since.

“I think this is probably the worst I’ve shot the ball from the three-point line in my whole career,” Brown told CelticsBlog/CLNS Media in February. “I just think the responsibility, the role is a little different. I’m the guy driving to the paint creating those opportunities for everybody else. You’ve got a team that shoots a lot of threes, so I’ve kind of settled in, I’m trying to get to the basket more this year and that kind of has thrown a little bit of my dexterity off on my three-point shooting, but I’m still capable. If I get hot or if I take shots that I like, I can still fill it up, but for the most part this year, I’ve been trying to get to the rim.”

Brown — who missed Monday’s loss for personal reasons — is hitting a career-low 33.6% from three. Tatum’s 7-for-29 (24.1%) slump since the break returned him to his worst mark too, 35.1%. Mazzulla blamed both on increased attempts from deep, and while that shows in their effective field goal percentages both hovering around 54%, Tatum’s (28.8%) pull-up three-point shooting undermines his 40.9% catch-and-shoot effectiveness outside. He missed all four pull-up attempts against New York.

The Celtics improved to 30-4 when hitting over the league average of 36% from three after beating Philadelphia, and fell to 14-14 when they shoot under that mark. That includes 14-1 and 9-13 splits since their 21-5 start. That line closely runs along before and after Robert Williams III returned, moving the Celtics back to bigger lineups rather than the five out group that sparked their historic start. Boston also ranks #3 in defense since that switch.

Boston doesn’t launch jumpers all game. They work for them, but when so many players fill catch-and-shoot roles on the perimeter and their best players don’t excel on pull-up jumpers, it can limit opportunities for bailout baskets outside of transition against tough defenses. Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson made it easier to shoot the amount of threes the Warriors did years ago, and all could hit mid-rangers.

The Celtics, on the other hand, don’t have Giannis Antetokounmpo level shooting limitations, hit and generate free throws, aren’t heliocentric and don’t face the Rudy Gobert playoff conundrum Utah did. Brown (49.7%) and Brogdon’s (47.8%) mid-range shots and Tatum’s free throw attempts and finishes give the offense some variety. Their big men don’t shoot at the rim often; Horford and Robert Williams III accounting for only 5.4 shot attempts at the rim per game.

Mike Muscala won’t help there, making it harder to watch Jakob Poetl, a supposed trade target last month, shoot 75.5% for Toronto while averaging 8.2 attempts there alone. Boston ranks 23rd in shot attempts at the rim and 27th in mid-range tries, which become more difficult limitations to account for when teams sell out to take the paint away.

“That Toronto kind of feel, maybe longer, kind of how Cleveland played last year, they play a lot of bigs, and a lot of length, can cover ground any time you get to the basket, long arms make those passes tough, they get a lot of deflections,” Brown said in January describing teams like the Magic, who the Knicks played like defensively this week. “Obviously, you get to the playoffs, it’s different. You game plan. The game slows down a little. You get to pick certain matchups and make the game easier for us.”

“Defensively, they’re a team that runs you off the line,” Brogdon told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog describing how New York limited Boston. “They force you to take tough threes or put the ball on the ground and get inside, and then their bigs are waiting at the rim, so they push you to take mid-range shots, and in today’s game analytics wise, those aren’t the most high percentage.”

When the Celtics work hard for shots, they can score as efficiently as any offense, but games like Monday’s show why they haven’t built a dynasty Warriors-like gap between themselves and the rest of the league. Those take hard work, layers of ball movement and screening missing from their more stagnant performances. When they settle, they struggle.

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