The NBA’s reliance on three-point shooting grows exponentially greater each season. During the 2014-15 regular season, 13 teams attempted more than 2,000 three-point field goals; only 12 teams combined attempted that figure over the last five seasons, including zero in 2011-12. Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey — a former statistical consultant with STATS Inc. — is a proponent of exclusively shooting three-pointers and layups, essentially eradicating the inefficient midrange game.
The Rockets are in all sorts of disarray after being lambasted, 128-95, by the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday night in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. They trail 3-1 in the series, and one of the primary reasons why is, ironically, the team’s three-point shooting.
Kevin McHale’s team set an NBA record for three-point field goals made (933) and attempted (2,680) during the regular season. Four Houston players made more than 100 three-pointers this season and eight attempted more than 100 from beyond the arc. The Rockets attempted a three-point field goal on 39.4 percent of the team’s possessions during the first 82 games, a frequency that dwarfs that of the rest of the league.
In the postseason, however, the team has made the sixth-most three-pointers (85) and is shooting just 33.9 percent (No. 9 among postseason teams). The Rockets are shooting 36.3 percent on three-pointers from the top of the key and a horrendous 17.4 percent from the left corner—a far cry from the 37.7 percent the team averaged from that spot during the regular season.
In the conference semifinals, Houston has attempted a three-point shot on 36 percent of its possessions, the highest frequency among all remaining playoff teams. However, the team is shooting 32.5 percent (second-lowest among all remaining playoff teams). By contrast, the team’s field goal percentage on two-point field goals is 47.4 percent, a much better figure than the team’s percentage from beyond the arc.
It’s not like Morey’s team isn’t finding open looks, either: In the conference semifinals, Houston is attempting 12.5 three-point field goals when the closest defender is four to six feet away — by most accounts, an open shot — suggesting that Los Angeles isn’t so much locking down the perimeter as they are just watching Houston lose this series brick by brick.
Los Angeles’ defended field goal percentage, or how well an opposing team shoots from certain areas when Clippers’ defenders are within a certain proximity of the shooter, is 35 percent from beyond the arc, the second-highest mark of all remaining playoff teams. This isn’t all that surprising: Doc Rivers’s club allowed opponents to make an average of 8.3 three-point field goals against them in the regular season (tied for sixth-highest of all teams) and the Rockets made an average of 10.8 three-point field goals against the Clippers in their four regular season matchups. But the Rockets have only made 9.75 through the first four games and are shooting a bottom-of-the-barrel percentage.
The reasons for the regression are glaring: Houston isn’t hitting the shots they’re accustomed to making and the Hack-A-DeAndre defensive approach stifles the team’s offense.
James Harden has elevated his three-point shooting accuracy in the postseason (41.4 percent in the postseason compared to 37.5 percent in the regular season), but just about all of his teammates have seen regressions beyond the arc: Trevor Ariza is shooting 27.7 percent, Josh Smith and Pablo Prigioni are shooting 31.3 percent. Losing Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas for the season because of injury didn’t help, either.
Harden has been ranked at the top of the league’s offensive transition metric all season. It’s essentially how McHale’s offense is sparked. Harden and Corey Brewer rank second and third in offensive transition postseason possessions, scoring a combined 1.16 points per possession on the play type, well above the league average. During the regular season, the Rockets had the second-best transition offense in the league (Golden State ranked first) and were lethal on spot-up attempts (0.97 points per possession), which were mostly created on transition plays. Both aspects have regressed substantially in the conference semifinals.
The math checks out on why intentionally fouling DeAndre Jordan isn’t the best option for a team. Furthermore, what the approach does to the opposing team’s offense is, if nothing else, a wrench thrown into the machine. Teams have to change the way they bring the ball up the court, and the transitional element of offense is often almost entirely eradicated. The Rockets are stifling their own attack-the-basket, drive-and-find-the-open-man offensive approach.
If there were a thumbnail image for Moreyball, it would be three-point shooting. However, Houston’s inability to make shots from beyond the arc is spelling the end of their season. Shooting 41.6 percent on uncontested shots in this series isn’t going to cut it, and the Rockets will watch the Clippers waltz their way into the Western Conference finals if it doesn’t improve.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.