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The Postseason of Our 3-Point Discontent

The Rockets’ and Celtics’ recent struggles in pivotal contests have cast some doubt on the efficacy of a 3-point-centric approach in the NBA postseason, but the data show there’s nothing wrong with playoff range

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Somewhere in the middle of the Rockets’ 27-shot barrage of missed 3-pointers in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, NBA fans would have been forgiven for thinking that Daryl Morey’s math, like Billy Beane’s, doesn’t work in the playoffs. Houston’s entire offensive system, which led to a team taking more 3s than 2s in the regular season for the first time in league history, backfired in the franchise’s most important game in a quarter-century—this just one night after Boston’s young shooters offered up their own 3-point clanks en route to their own Game 7 conference finals loss.

Out of the 350 times a team has taken at least 30 3-pointers in a playoff game, Houston’s Game 7 performance (7-for-44, or 15.9 percent) was the second worst, while Boston’s (7-for-39, or 17.9 percent) was fourth from the bottom. Both were historically abysmal shooting performances, both were at home, and both were in a close Game 7 with a chance to end a conference dynasty.

Staggering team totals like those naturally included staggeringly poor individual numbers, too, and those misses were so galling because they came from generally accurate shooters. This wasn’t Mark Madsen hoisting 3s to tank his team’s record; it was the presumptive MVP and fellow worthy shooters doing their best John Starks impressions.

  • James Harden (36.7 percent 3-point shooter in the regular season): 2-for-13 from 3 in Game 7
  • Eric Gordon (35.9 percent): 2-for-12
  • Trevor Ariza (36.8 percent): 0-for-9
  • Jaylen Brown (39.5 percent): 3-for-12
  • Terry Rozier (38.1 percent): 0-for-10

Those unflattering comparisons might have turned neutral observers off of the very idea of a 3-point-centric strategy in the playoffs. But the notion that 3-point shooting inherently suffers in the playoffs—and that the Rockets’ disaster was not the result of a statistically improbable fluke—is unfounded. Long-range accuracy drops slightly in the postseason, but not by anywhere near a meaningful amount, and not by any greater a margin than shooting accuracy from anywhere else on the court.

Comparing regular-season to postseason shooting isn’t as simple as placing leaguewide numbers side by side, because the samples of teams are different—generally, worse offensive teams don’t make the playoffs. But we can compare how well each team shoots in the regular season versus the playoffs, and then spin those team-by-team comparisons into a broader conclusion about how the league fares.

For instance, this year’s Celtics took 581 3-pointers in the playoffs. In the regular season, they shot 37.7 percent on 3s, so at that rate, we would have expected them to make 219 playoff 3s (labeled as “xMakes” in the below chart). Boston made only 199, though, missing 20 3-pointers relative to expectations. Put another way, the Celtics’ shooting accuracy dipped by 3.4 percentage points compared to the regular season. Here is that comparison for every 2018 playoff team:

Playoff 3-Point-Shooting Percentage Difference

Team 3-Point Attempts xMakes Makes Shooting % Difference
Team 3-Point Attempts xMakes Makes Shooting % Difference
Minnesota 109 39 45 5.6%
Toronto 267 96 104 3.1%
Miami 138 50 54 3.1%
Milwaukee 180 64 67 1.7%
Oklahoma City 173 61 63 1.0%
New Orleans 243 88 89 0.4%
Utah 329 120 118 -0.7%
Washington 131 49 48 -0.8%
Indiana 190 70 68 -1.1%
Houston 676 245 228 -2.5%
Philadelphia 293 108 99 -3.1%
Cleveland 545 203 185 -3.3%
Portland 129 47 43 -3.3%
Boston 581 219 199 -3.4%
Golden State 523 204 184 -3.9%
San Antonio 141 50 42 -5.4%

Most teams did lose some accuracy in the playoffs, and the four conference finalists in particular compare unfavorably with their regular-season selves by this measure. To judge the league’s playoff performance as a whole, we can sum up those 16 team results. But if we’re concerned about a possible leaguewide trend of playoff inaccuracy, results from just one year aren’t enough, so it makes more sense to examine the expected makes and actual makes for every playoff team since 2011. (That’s the first year in LeBron James’s eight-year Finals streak, which serves as a reasonable proxy for the current 3-point age; the last playoff game before 2011—2010’s Game 7 between the Lakers and Celtics—feels like it belongs to a previous era, with the victorious Lakers structuring their offense around the Bryant-Gasol-Odom trio.)

Over that span of playoff games, teams shot a total of 31,181 3s. Based on regular-season rates, we would expect 11,429 to have been successful, but in reality, only 10,905 were. That’s 524 3-pointers that teams should have made but didn’t. Seems like a lot! But those 524 3s are spread out over eight postseasons, which have 663 total games—so that’s less than one missing 3 per game. Based on their regular-season averages, teams should have made 8.6 3s per game in the playoffs; in reality, they made 8.2. That difference is negligible.

Moreover, even that small drop in 3-point percentage is consistent with the drops in shooting percentage from elsewhere on the floor. Going by the same “expected” method using regular-season rates, the playoffs since 2011 have also featured 1,456 missing 2-point makes and 293 missing free throw makes. On a percentage basis, the differences are similarly small from every distance.

Expected Accuracy vs. Actual Accuracy

Shot Type Expected Accuracy Actual Accuracy
Shot Type Expected Accuracy Actual Accuracy
3-Pointers 36.7% 35.0%
2-Pointers 50.3% 48.4%
Free Throws 76.6% 75.7%

Comparing xMakes with actual makes on an individual rather than a team level to account for potential rotation changes in the playoffs yields a nearly identical result for 3-pointers: a drop of 1.9 percentage points from expected to actual shooting percentage over the past eight postseasons. And while some individuals have performed worse in the playoffs—Harden’s regular-season rate predicted he would have made 64 3s this spring, while he made just 52—others have been better, and most players see their playoff versus regular-season rates fluctuate from year to year. Steph Curry underperformed relative to expectations in the 2015 and 2016 playoffs, but he was slightly more accurate in the 2017 playoffs. That’s not evidence of a trend.

Nor is there proof that teams that rely more on 3-pointers or advance further into the playoffs fare worse. While the four conference finalists this year have all happened to shoot less accurately than they did in the regular season, that’s not always the case. The 2016-17 Warriors were better from 3 in the playoffs, as were the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Cavaliers.

And finally, despite what the two most recent Game 7s have suggested, this postseason is not an outlier, either. Using the team-by-team numbers again, playoff 3-point accuracy has consistently dropped by about the same 2 percentage points year after year. If anything, recent years have seen less of a leaguewide playoff shooting slump than prior postseasons.

Playoff 3-Point-Shooting Differential Since 2011

Year Change
Year Change
2011 -2.0%
2012 -2.6%
2013 -2.6%
2014 -1.0%
2015 -2.2%
2016 -1.2%
2017 -0.8%
2018 -1.6%

A number of factors could explain the fact that while the numbers don’t drop much, they do drop slightly every spring. Teams with porous defenses tend not to reach the playoffs, and playing the same team for weeks at a time means coaches are able to game plan more effectively to combat an opponent’s pet plays and offensive strengths. Fatigue might also play a factor; neither stingier defense nor familiarity explains the free throw percentage disparity, minor though it may be.

But those factors affect both 2s and 3s equally, and they don’t affect any shot by a sufficient amount to question wholesale offensive strategies. Morey’s math is not mistaken. And if either the Warriors or Cavaliers struggle from range in an important game in the next two weeks, don’t blame them for trying to optimize their shot chart. The best-shooting tandem in NBA history has won two of the past three titles, after all, and is four wins away from a third ring. It’s hard to say 3s don’t work in the playoffs when Curry and Klay Thompson keep playing into June.