MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — On their fourth game in five nights, the heavy-legged Portland Trail Blazers were getting blitzed by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Despite walking into Target Center on Wednesday night with the league’s best record, the Blazers found themselves down by 26 points when they slumped into the locker room at halftime. The margin was still 22 going into the fourth quarter, a deficit big enough to prompt most coaches to raise the white flag, sit the starters and gear up for the next game.
Coach Terry Stotts thought about it, but couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. The way his Blazers shoot 3-pointers, they’re almost never out of a game.
The Blazers started chucking, and the deficit started shrinking. Eighteen of their 26 shots in the fourth were 3-pointers, and they buried six of them to pull within five points in the final minute. The Timberwolves held them off, but the let-it-fly mentality Stotts has employed with his sharp-shooting team, an approach that makes some hoops traditionalists cringe, was only further validated in one of the rare defeats Portland has suffered this season.
"Two things, one is you don’t know when to pull a plug on a game like this, and two, with our team, with our ability to shoot, you just don’t know," Stotts said.
More and more teams are adopting that approach as analytics-driven front offices and coaching staffs have turned the 3-point shot from a novelty in the dump-it-down-low 1980s and ‘90s into the biggest weapon in the modern NBA offense.
The 3 was viewed as a gimmick when the NBA introduced it in 1979-80. That first season, teams averaged just 2.8 attempts per game. The number steadily rose over the next 15 years until spiking from 1994-97, when the NBA moved the line closer to the basket to try to increase scoring. It dipped from 16.8 attempts to 12.7 when the line was moved back.
But as the dominant centers like Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O’Neal started to fade away, and defensive rules were added to make lives easier for the guards on the perimeter, the NBA offense has evolved. Teams were averaging a record 21 3-point attempts per game in the middle of this past week, according to STATS, and there’s no sign of the trend slowing down.
The Blazers shot 40 3-pointers in that loss to the Wolves on Wednesday night, while not too far away in Milwaukee, the Knicks shot 41 in a double-overtime win over the Bucks. Dating back to the 1985-86 season, there have been 36 games in which a team has attempted at least 40 3-pointers in a game. Twelve of those have come since the beginning of last season.
"I don’t think you can win at a high level anymore without being a 3-point shooting team," Timberwolves President Flip Saunders said. "You have to have threats. Not only threat of making 3s, but also the threat of opening up the offense by making those."
The numbers support Saunders’ theory. Three-pointers played a huge role in the NBA Finals last season, when Danny Green set a finals record for 3s made in helping the San Antonio Spurs take a 3-2 lead. Miami responded by going 11 of 19 from deep in Game 6, with none bigger than Ray Allen’s from the corner that pushed the game into overtime. Shane Battier’s six 3s in Game 7 played a huge role in the win that clinched Miami’s second straight title.
This season, the top 10 teams in 3-point attempts had a combined record of 134-117 (.534) at midweek. The bottom 10 went 120-140 (.461). When looking at percentages, the top 10 were a combined 143-99 (.587), as opposed to 120-151 (.443) for the bottom 10.
"It’s tougher to run offense through the post now. There aren’t many back-to-the-basket dominant scorers anymore," said Phoenix GM Ryan McDonough, whose Suns have been one of the biggest surprises in the league this year thanks in large part to being a top 3-point shooting team. "So especially if you don’t have one of those guys, you try to spread the floor a little bit more, be a little more athletic, try to have better cross-matches or switches on the perimeter — Miami does a really good job with that — and try to shoot 3s.
"If a team is going to pound you inside, how are you going to get them back? Well, you’re going to rain down 3s on them and try to get 3 for every time they get two."
The Houston Rockets are at the forefront of the Threevolution, surrounding Dwight Howard with unabashed shooters who chuck 27.2 3s a game. The Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers and the Golden State Warriors, who rode hot shooting last year into the Western Conference semifinals, are among the other teams parlaying strong shooting from 3 to success in the standings.
The Blazers won 22 of their first 26 on the strength of a league-leading 41.1 percent shooting from deep. They were also fourth in the league with 24.9 attempts per game, though Stotts has felt at times this year like he’s had to defend his philosophy.
"There’s still a lot of old school guys that aren’t necessarily willing to accept the importance of the shot," Stotts said. "I like its impact on the game. I think it’s great when you have skilled players who are able to make those shots."
Now you’re seeing general managers construct their rosters to feature the 3-point shot. This summer, accomplished shooters like J.J. Redick and Kevin Martin were among the most coveted free agents on the market. The hot new position is the "stretch four" — a power forward who can step out and shoot 3s like Kevin Love or Ryan Anderson.
"It is nice that the 3-point shot is definitely more welcome nowadays," said Warriors guard Steph Curry, the hot-shooting son of former Hornets 3-point specialist Dell Curry. "It’s not a foreign idea like it was when it was instituted back when my pops was starting to play. So it’s good."
Is the 3 becoming too big a part of the NBA game? Aside from altering the 3-point arc again, perhaps to take away the much shorter corner 3, there isn’t an easy answer that would address those concerns.
Stotts has a hard time understanding what all the fuss is about.
"I like the fact that it’s a skill," Stotts said. "Basketball is about athleticism and skill. You’ve got to have the shooters for the 3-point shot to be there and I don’t know if there’s a ceiling on it or not."
Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski