News

Sure, LeBron James is great, but NBA playoffs are all about the three-pointer

There were two main things to notice about the semifinals of this year’s NBA playoffs.

One: the stunning dominance of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 33-year old LeBron James.

Two: the effect of the three-point shot on the essence of basketball.

RELATED STORIES
Warriors open NBA Finals as heavy favorites over Cavs
Warriors top Rockets to reach fourth consecutive NBA Finals

HOUSTON, TX - MAY 28: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors celebrates a three pointer in the third quarter of Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on May 28, 2018 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775164003

The first item — LBJ — we can talk about another time, if we haven’t praised him enough already.  James is in his eighth straight NBA Finals and is a force the likes of which the game has likely never seen.

All hail the King!

But the way the Golden State Warriors are utilizing the three-point shot, and—perhaps more important–the way they are defending against the three-pointer, has made basketball theory and strategy from even a decade ago as obsolete as soft coal.

In the crucial Game 7 of the semis against the Houston Rockets on Monday night, on the road, the Warriors launched 39 three-pointers and made 16.  That’s a 41 percent success rate, which is quite good, but almost normal for the Warriors, who averaged 38.4 percent on threes for the regular season.

The Rockets, on the other hand, fired up 44 treys, making just seven, for a pitiful 15.9 percent. That means the Warriors outscored the Rockets 48-21 on threes, which is why they won the game 101-92.

In fact, the Warriors have shown that no team is going to be great without being great at long-range shooting. They have also shown you can virtually hand the other team as many twos as it wants as long as you guard the three-point line with passion.

This stands old-school basketball on its head.

Being close to the basket used to be good. No more.

You wanna dunk and shatter the backboard and growl like a lion? Do it. A Warrior will launch a gentle arc from 10 yards out, watch it softly part the twine and have outscored you by half.

The three-pointer is everything these days, now that teams have finally realized how beneficial it is to score 50 percent more on a shot that is long but makeable.

The Warriors and Rockets are three-point maniacs. Indeed, the Rockets this season became the first team to shoot more threes than twos. And the Warriors led the league in three-point shooting percentage.

The Warriors score so many points, it’s ridiculous.

This season they piled up 120 points or more 30 times. Anybody remember the 143-94 atrocity they laid on the Bulls in November? If so, try to expunge it from your brain, except as a landmark of how far our local team is from elite status.

Think of this, too.

Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and their ilk took, and made, a ton of midrange shots back in the 1990s. Well, the 12- to 18-foot jumper is deader than the prairie chicken. A mid-distance jump shot in this new era makes no sense.

Step back a few feet, and the reward is much greater.

Because Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and other Warriors are so good at making threes, their coach, Steve Kerr, knows that if they stop the other team’s threes, it’s game over.

Thus, the Warriors guarded the Rockets as soon as they got close to the three-point line and harassed Trevor Ariza into near-insanity. Ariza finished 0-for-12 from the field, 0-for-9 on threes.

James Harden and Eric Gordon, the gunners on the Rockets, were not much better, shooting a combined 4-for-25 from behind the arc. The most stunning stretch of threes for the Rockets was a second-half 0-for-27 interlude.

If you’d said this was the county fair and the Rockets were rubes getting hustled by slicks, you wouldn’t have been far off.

”We had three-point opportunities,’’ Harden said afterward. ”They just didn’t go down.’’

Because they were defended. Because shooting the three means risk.

Twos are easy. The Warriors all but invited the Rockets to take them.

But the game now is all about getting as far from the basket as you can, having somebody kick the ball to you, then nailing a shot that once upon a time would have gotten you yanked from the game by your coach. It’s a new world.

All hail the trey!

Legendary Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their gritty, no-holds-barred takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.