Can the Atlanta Hawks win by attempting more three-pointers than free throws?

April 28

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks have looked like a legitimate threat to sink the top-seeded Indiana Pacers in their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series, which is tied at two games apiece. One of the reasons for that is how much they stretch the floor, ranking second during the regular season in three-point rate at 31.6 percent. Atlanta has been especially reliant on the three-pointer during the playoffs, as well, comfortably leading all playoff participants with a three-point rate of 39.7.

In other words, the Hawks love the three-ball. They’ve taken between 29 to 34 three-pointers in each of the first four games, helping make for something quite unusual: Atlanta has attempted more three-pointers than free throws by a comfortable margin, 124 to 101.


Below is a chart of the top differential between free throws and three-point shot attempts:

Season Teams 3PA FTA Differential
2013 New York 2371 1729 642
2006 Phoenix 2097 1475 622
2010 New York 2145 1759 386
2009 New York 2284 1900 384
2014 New York 2038 1670 368
2014 Atlanta 2116 1782 334
2014 Golden State 2037 1731 306
2013 Houston 2369 2087 282
2013 Atlanta 1901 1619 282
2012 Orlando 1785 1508 277
2013 Portland 1904 1680 224
2014 LA Lakers 2032 1835 197
2013 Orlando 1537 1359 178
2003 Boston 2155 1994 161
2004 Seattle 1936 1782 154
2014 Portland 2071 1926 145
2014 Dallas 1877 1733 144

As shown above, Atlanta has some company this year with Dallas and Golden State taking more three-pointers than free throws, and it’s been done over an entire playoff series 37 times from 1995 to 2013. It’s also become more frequent since 2007, most likely thanks to the increased importance of the three-point shot and decline in free throw rate. The same goes for looking at regular seasons, too, with more three-pointers than free throws attempted 33 times since 1996, 29 times over the last eight years.

To go back to Atlanta, though, I’d argue they would be the most unique team to pull off the feat, and they’ve already done it in the regular season by taking 2,116 three-pointers to 1,782 free throws. A lot of that can be attributed to their current starting lineup of Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Pero Antic. That unit was the only one to log more than 250 minutes this season and have each player average at least one three-point attempt per 36 minutes, according to NBA.com. The 76ers’ starting lineup with Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner also made the cut, but those two players were traded to Cleveland and Indiana, respectively.

That’s quite the “stretchy” lineup, though. When looking at the same five-man groups that logged at least 250 minutes during the season, Atlanta’s starters had far and away the highest three-point rate at 42.4 percent and, when using the same minutes filter, it’s the highest ever since NBA.com tracked lineup statistics. They also sported a solid offensive rating of 106.1, a mark that would rank in the top 10 overall for teams this year. For playoff groups that have played at least 20 minutes so far, they rank first again in three-point rate at 43.2.

Rank Lineups (via NBA.com) MIN 3P rate FT rate
1 Antic,Pero – Carroll,DeMarre – Korver,Kyle – Millsap,Paul – Teague,Jeff (ATL) 297 42.4% 24.4%
2 Johnson,Joe – Livingston,Shaun – Pierce,Paul – Plumlee,Mason – Williams,Deron (BKN) 284 34.1% 25.1%
3 Dragic,Goran – Frye,Channing – Green,Gerald – Plumlee,Miles – Tucker,PJ (PHX) 525 31.7% 20.0%
4 Burke,Trey – Favors,Derrick – Hayward,Gordon – Jefferson,Richard – Williams,Marvin (UTA) 602 30.7% 21.7%
5 Calderon,Jose – Carter,Vince – Dalembert,Samuel – Ellis,Monta – Marion,Shawn (DAL) 257 30.0% 18.3%

Even when looking through teams that either attempted more three-pointers than free throws in a season or a single playoff series, having all five starters able to shoot from behind the arc is a rare find. Only the 2003 Mavericks had a few similar (and better) stretchy starting lineups during their semifinal with Sacramento. Most teams are missing the rare stretch-5 like  Pero Antic is for the Hawks, though he only started after Al Horford tore his right pectoral muscle.

In Atlanta’s first four playoff games, their starting lineup has played 75 minutes and shot 41.5 percent from the perimeter, according to NBA.com. It’s forced Roy Hibbert, one of two defensive player of the year candidates for the Pacers (Paul George being the other), to abandon the paint to contest three-pointers. At times, it’s opened up paths to the rim that Teague can score with or dish to a shooter waiting beyond the arc. Over the next two or three games, maybe that’ll be enough to help push the Hawks past a Pacers squad that’s gone through frustrating bouts of inconsistency.

Looking ahead, though, it’s worth noting that no team has ever attempted more three-pointers than free throws in two consecutive playoff rounds and won both, with strong teams like the 2008 Spurs losing. To go along with contenders, no team has attempted more three-pointers than free throws in the regular season and won a title, but a few have come awfully close. The 2013 Miami Heat is the only team to attempt more three-pointers than free throws in the NBA Finals and win, a unique team in regards to those two ways to score. So, too, are this year’s Hawks.

Matt Femrite lives in Minnesota and blogs about the NBA at http://chickennoodlehoop.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FattMemrite

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