Thursday, May 28, 2009

Make Shots

The 2001 Western Conference Finals were an eagerly anticipated matchup between the 58-24 San Antonio Spurs and the 56-26 Los Angeles Lakers, a showdown between the two previous NBA champions - the teams with the top two records in the league, who were widely considered to be the best two teams in the league.

The Lakers blitzed through the series in a four-game sweep, winning by an average score of 104-81 after catching fire from outside, connecting on 32-72 (.444) from three-point land for the series, after shooting just .344 from long range during the season. And they did so against a Spurs defense which ranked 1st in opponents 3pt FG% at .329. The key player was Derek Fisher, who went 15-20 (.750), after connecting on 25-63 (.397) during his 20 games in the regular season.

Meanwhile, the Spurs shot just 13-59 (.220) from behind the arc in the series, after leading the league with a .407 percentage during the 2000-01 regular season.

When David Robinson was asked after Game 4 to come up with a strategy for how those Lakers could be beaten, he said, "No. 1, you have to make shots."


Make shots. For all the analysis, sometimes basketball just boils down to something so simple: can you make your open shots? Simply making or missing open threes has been a key factor not only in the Magic-Cavs series, but in the entire Orlando postseason.

The three has of course been a huge weapon for Orlando all season long - they were 2nd in the NBA in both threes made (10.0 pg) and attempted (26.2 pg), and 6th in 3pt FG% (.381).

In the First Round, Orlando struggled to outlast an inferior Philly team in part because they only hit .346 for the series, while the Sixers - who were the worst 3pt-shooting team in the regular season at .318 - outshot them from distance for the series at .368.

In the Conference Semis, both the Magic and the Celtics (who were 1st in the NBA in 3pt% at .397) suffered colossal shooting slumps until Orlando broke through with a 13-21 performance on threes which keyed the Game 7 blowout in Boston. To that point, Orlando had been just 43-141 (.305) for the series (the C's were just .289 for the entire series).

Now, mercifully for Magic fans, the tide has finally turned, as they have connected on an average of 10.5-24.5 (.429) 3's in Conference Finals, including 17-38 in Game 4, and they've done it against a Cleveland team that ranked 1st in 3pt FG% defense at .333.

It's the Cavs who have lost the touch from downtown, averaging just 6-23 (.261) for the series, after ranking 2nd in the league in the regular season at .393. How do you trail 3-1 in a series when you have a player averaging a 42-7-7? Well, a lot of it is right here, in the three-point percentages of the supporting cast:
    PLAYER      SEASON   SERIES     
    M Williams .436 .222
    D West .399 .294
    W Szczerbiak .411 .000
    D Gibson .382 .333
Orlando was 2nd in 3pt% D for the season, but still, the Cavs have had plenty of good looks. With Games 5 and 7 scheduled for Cleveland, the Cavs certainly still have a chance to rally and avoid a disappointing exit. How can they do it? More than anything, knock down open shots.