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The Night the 3-Pointer Betrayed the Rockets

Houston built a winner with a never-ending barrage of long-range attempts. But its NBA Finals dreams were dashed because of one of the worst cold stretches from deep in league history.

“0-27” with James Harden’s face in the zero Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I will never forget the most 3-point shots I missed in a row.

In college, a few friends and I went to play pickup, and as we were leaving, I did what I always do—tried to make one last 3 before going home. Usually this takes no more than four or five shots, but soon, I was officially holding my friends up from leaving. A minor nuisance, until they saw how frustrated I was getting at my inability to hit one last shot and realized leaving was less important than witnessing my brickfest. They began heckling the hell out of every miss, hooting and hollering louder with each one.

All in all, this probably took no more than three minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. I’ll never forget the sheer frustration of a seemingly simple task suddenly becoming impossible, and I’ll never forget the number of consecutive shots I missed: 14.

Monday night, the Houston Rockets missed 27 3-pointers in a row in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. Houston’s 11-point halftime lead vanished as the team went 0-for-14 from 3 in the third quarter. The Rockets eventually lost 101-92 to a Warriors team that didn’t suddenly forget how to shoot.

Surely, over the course of the season, the rims at the Toyota Center had come to trust the Rockets, who had so frequently thrown the ball right into the net instead of smashing the metal ring. But in Game 7, Houston missed every type of 3. There were wide-open corner 3s missed—seriously, wide, wide open 3s—and there were closely contested 28-footers. Trevor Ariza missed a shot that hit every part of the rim; Eric Gordon pulled up and threw an uncontested shot about 3 feet wide of the rim. There were a few shots when James Harden thought he’d drawn a foul, but didn’t. The video of all the misses doesn’t look that dissimilar from a Rockets highlight reel—a bevy of dudes launching 3s from every available spot, sometimes open, sometimes not—the only difference being that in the past, those shot trajectories had been a few inches different.

My miss streak was probably more pathetic than Houston’s: I was shooting against no defense behind a college arc, whereas the Rockets were shooting from the pro line in a pressure-packed situation. But then again, I was a garbage pickup baller in a more-or-less empty gym; the Rockets were the most prolific 3-point-shooting team in NBA history playing in the most important game of the basketball season to date. So maybe they should be more embarrassed.

It’s not quite clear whether what the Rockets did set an all-time record—the Elias Sports Bureau said that the 27 consecutive misses were an NBA postseason record, although it didn’t specify whether any team had ever missed more 3s in a row during a regular-season game. It seems unlikely, though, that another team could top Houston’s performance. Most games in the history of the league haven’t had 27 3-point attempts, let alone 27 3-point misses, let alone all of them happening in a row. What we do know is that by shooting 7-for-44 from 3, the Rockets set a new record for most misses in a playoff game, and it was the worst 3-point-shooting game they had all season. The team hadn’t shot below 20 percent before Monday night’s 15.9 percent.

Inevitably, this will be viewed as a referendum on Houston, a team built on the edge of the NBA’s 3-point revolution. It’s understandable: The Rockets were the first team in NBA history to shoot more 3-pointers than 2s, and their eventual downfall was because of a historic clanking. We have to mock them. After all, they missed twenty-seven consecutive 3s.

As the old saying goes: If you live by the 3, you’ll die by the 3. The gist is that the farther away from the net you shoot from, the more unreliable your skills will be, so if you depend too much on deep shots, it might come back to haunt you. To put it in fancier words: There’s an unsettling amount of variance inherent in building a team around 3-point shooters.

The analytics wave, though, has made the case that betting it all on 3-point shooting is worth the risk. Three points is 1.5 times more than two points, but a 3-pointer is not 1.5 times more difficult to make than a 2-pointer. The old-timers believe 3-pointers are too inconsistent to rely on, but the analytics folks believe that 3-pointers are the most consistently exploitable advantage in the game.

Houston, though, wasn’t built solely on this advantage. The Rockets shot more 3s than any team in NBA history, but they weren’t just five disconnected gunners. They weren’t about hurling and hoping, but rather about overcoming the built-in unreliability of the 3. They played a true center in Clint Capela and 3-and-D types like P.J. Tucker, Trevor Ariza, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute over a shooting specialist in Ryan Anderson, making them strong enough defensively (sixth-best in the regular season) to withstand bad shooting nights. And most importantly, they had two stars who served as outlets in case bricks broke the glass emergency pane: Harden, whose knack for getting to the line leads to even more efficient scoring opportunities than corner 3s, and Chris Paul, the point god.

And it worked. The Rockets had the NBA’s best record and came within a game of toppling the NBA’s current dynastic power before Paul’s hamstring injury forced him to miss the series’s final two games. And then they missed 27 3s in a row. Harden was too tired to be effective during this stretch, and Paul had to sit on the bench helplessly as his team collapsed.

The Rockets lost by only nine Monday night. If they’d hit three more 3s, they would have shot 10-for-44, or 22.7 percent from 3, their second-worst shooting night in 99 games this season, and they would have had a real chance of beating the Warriors. Instead, they had their worst game—a true outlier—and their grand experiment failed.

The Rockets will stay the course. The analytics remain trustworthy, and the team they built this season was too good, too close to reaching the Finals, to stray from. But surely, they will remember the night when everything the skeptics said about them was true; the night they rediscovered that sometimes it is hard to throw a ball a long way into a tiny cylinder.

Statistics say it is virtually impossible for a team to miss 27 consecutive 3s; the Rockets shot 36.2 percent from 3 during the season, which gave them 186,220-to-1 odds of missing 27 in a row, per Internet Math People. But Monday night was the night math broke, and so did the Rockets.