The Orlando Magic are down 0-2 in the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers. Sports sites and basketball experts are busy decoding every game and pinpointing the Magic’s struggle and one of the arguments you and I are sure to hear is that the Magic take too many threes.
The Magic have struggled to connect on the long range bombs making only 34.8 percent of shots beyond the arc in game one and 33.3 percent of those shots in game two. Considering that the good three point shooting teams hit around 38 percent of their long shots this is a problem, especially when you consider that 23 of the Magic’s 77 shots in the first game and 30 of the Magic’s 79 shots came from beyond the arc.
The Lakers have taken a mere 24 three point shots in the two games combined, so though the team has only made 33.3 percent or eight of those shots, their offense has not been devastated by the misses.
This will of course begin the conversation that I began to hear from the announcers in the Eastern Conference Finals when it became clear that the Magic were going to bury the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the NBA’s, finals dream. The sentiment was reiterated several times, seemingly at each miss, that the problem with the Magic is that they live and die by the three.
Common basketball wisdom states that the closer you are to the basket the easier it is to make the shot, so if the majority of your shots are from a farther distance then you are simply playing tempting fate to give you a bad night at the worst possible moment in a series.
I think that there is more to the distain color commentators and some (not all) experts have for the three. The first is that many times you have coaches, a Jeff Van Gundy or a Mike Fratello, dispersing their basketball wisdom from the safety of the sidelines where they do not have to suffer the wrath of fans seeking blood for losses and where their sports philosophy can be neatly justified on a single play.
These coaches like to win and to have control and it is easier to exert control by focusing on defense and slowing the pace of the game (i.e. not taking 20 threes and pounding the ball inside instead). A few do not mind letting the players have fun and play within a loose system. There are coaches like Don Nelson with 100+ points per game teams in the early 21st century when the game was still coming out of the guerilla play of the 1990s and suffering from an influx of high schoolers unaware of how to actually play the game. However, most coaches are like Jeff Van Gundy who expresses some disdain for the three and favors a suffocating defense (look at the Knicks in 1996-97) that has the effect of decreasing his team’s own scoring ability thanks to the level of control over the tempo of the game.
The second reason for the doubt of the power of the three is that in single-game elimination tournaments like the NCAA Tournament the great equalizer in every match up is the three point shot. No matter how overwhelmed a lower seed is by the size of the players and the level of talent on the higher seeded team, if they can shoot lights out and hit 50 percent of their shots from beyond the arc they have a chance for an upset. Thus, the three point shot take on this almost underdog association, so if a team takes a lot of three point shots then they must be covering up for a deficient offense.
The third and final reason I think people have issue with the three is that some of the teams that take the most three point shots do so with little regard to an actual offensive system that sets up good shots. This season the NBA saw a number of very good teams adopt the three point shot into their system successfully. Still, there were still teams like the Indiana Pacers and the New Jersey Nets that took 20 plus threes a game and missed the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. These teams did not get back on defense and played seemed to give up on the court sometimes.
The problem with all these arguments is that they do not necessarily apply to the Orlando Magic or today’s game. From a league stand point, if you look at the ten teams that took the most three point shots this season seven made the playoffs. There combined record was 474-346. If you look at the ten teams that took the least three point shots five made the playoffs, but the combined record was 365-455.
After years of changing rules to encourage a perimeter game and up the scoring it appears as though the three point shot has become a serious component of the best teams’ game. Cleveland, Orlando, and San Antonio were among those teams that took the most three point shots and they were all within the top three seeds in their conferences. The three point shot is no longer a weapon of choice for the underdog, but increasingly a nail in the coffin from the favorites.
From a team stand point, the Orlando Magic are not the happy-go-lucky shooting team that jacks up the long range bombs with abandonment. The team has an offense built around the post, or built around Dwight Howard. With Howard in the middle, four perimeter shooters, and solid ball movement the average three point shot is a good set shot. If anything, the offense is based on solid fundamentals, going in then out or simply finding the open shot. They get back on defense too, holding teams to 94.4 points per game during the regular season and 94.3 points per game in the postseason on their way to the finals.
If anything, John Hollinger of ESPN notes in the Daily Dime that the problem may actually be that the Orlando Magic guards are not pushing the ball for a secondary break. In a secondary break the ball is pushed up the court to one side quickly and then reversed to the other side where one of the solid shooters has set up for a good three point shot.
That lack of ball movement has, yes led to bad three point shots, but the answer is to find better three point shots, not abandon the perimeter. Then you may see Howard posting 40 point games where he faces single coverage and is free to get those thunderous put back dunks that killed the Cavs.
So, yes the Magic will live and die by the three, but after winning 59 games in the regular season and winning playoff series against the Celtics and the Cavs they are not predestined to die because of the three point shot. In fact, the answer to the 0-2 hole is take better three point shots and let those quality perimeter players make their open shots.
That will open up the inside game and make the Lakers choose between single coverage on Howard or hoping its defense can recover with three perimeter defenders on four good shooters.
So, yes, only three teams have come back from a 0-2 start to win the finals, but let’s not forget that the Magic have the great equalizer, the three point shot, on their side.