Professional sports have long been copycat leagues. When one team lands upon a winning formula, the rest of the teams soon follow. In the NBA, the Golden State Warriors have run amok, scoring at a record-shattering pace and hoisting three-pointers not long after the ball enters the palm. In all likelihood, the Warriors will set the mark for best record in a season.
There is, however, a reason why the Warriors are so successful. They don’t win games only because they shoot a lot of threes; they win games because they play great team basketball–and happen to have two of the league’s most gifted shooters. The Warriors shoot threes because they have players capable of making them.
The trend toward this uptempo offensive style is not new. Mike D’Antoni preached “Seven seconds or less,” and Houston general manager Daryl Morey emerged as the Billy Beane of basketball–valuing points in the paint and three-pointers over every other type of offense. The key is having players who excel in those areas.
Since Tony Brown has taken over for Lionel Hollins, the Nets’ offensive numbers have shot through the roof. They’re eclipsing the shooting mark of most other teams–rivaling even the Warriors in terms of percentage. Brooklyn is taking a lot of them, though, and playing no defense in the process. The scores have changed but the record hasn’t. New general manager Sean Marks will have a lot do with the remedy.
The Cleveland Cavaliers exhibited why copycat basketball does not breed a winner. The Nets led for most of the night in a 104-95 win over the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 team, but the style was more shocking than the result.
No one can blame the Cavaliers for mailing one in on the second night of a back-to-back. They’ve had a few clunkers lately, including losses to the Utah Jazz and severely undermanned Memphis Grizzlies. Their process is faulty, and that was on display against the Nets. Under Tyronn Lue, the Cavs have more or less abandoned ball movement and the slashing style that has made them one of the NBA’s most dangerous teams They now shoot threes. A lot of them. Against the Nets, the Cavs hoisted 38 three-pointers, converting on just 10. The Warriors, they are not.
Kevin Love has become a statue on the three-point line–and he’s no Kyle Korver. J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Kyrie Irving, and Channing Frye all took more than three attempts from behind the arc, and Shumpert was the big winner–converting on 33 percent of his shots from distance. On multiple possessions, the Cavs ran a high pick-and-roll, enabling LeBron James to seamlessly enter the paint. He then eschewed relatively easy layups to skip the ball into the corner for a three. His fellow starters combined to shoot 3-for-21 from three. James, statistically, had one of his best shooting performances ever–going 13-for-16 from the field. He shot just two threes, converting on one of them.
The problem with long jump shots is they don’t always go in–unless you’re Stephen Curry. The Nets have increasingly relied on three-point attempts, but against the Cavs, it was their bread and butter that won the game. Brook Lopez made himself a presence in the paint, scoring 22 points on 8-for-15 shooting. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Thaddeus Young combined to score 18 points on 9-for-17 shooting. All their successful attempts came within 10-12 feet of the rim, save for one long jumper from Hollis-Jefferson.
Kilpatrick, who has lit up the box-score lately, struggled mightily with his shot. He scored 10 points but went 4-for-13 from the field. All four conversions came in the paint, and he went 0-for-6 from three. The Nets, as a team, shot 36.4 percent on their three-pointers, but they scored 60 points in the paint.
Lue did not fear the Nets’ ability to hit three-pointers, though. “This Brooklyn team was a dangerous team,” he said. “Brook Lopez is a load down low. Smart job by coach Tony Brown to start Shane Larkin. He’s fast, he can penetrate, he can get into the paint and cause havoc.”
Shooting the three-pointer makes sense when it comes as the result of ball movement, or a team has a gifted sharp-shooter. Tony Brown often preaches “pace,” which has translated to a lot of long shots, a lot of points, but just as many losses. The Cavs, on the other hand, have been no better under Lue than they were under the embattled David Blatt. They’re still good because they have elite talent. The coach has not made an appreciable difference.
The Cavs have the requisite weapons to play dominant basketball. They’ve beaten both the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Los Angeles Clippers because they have the horses to win any race. Based on talent, they are a championship contender.
Cleveland nearly went the final six minutes of the game without scoring. In the final four minutes, the Cavs missed seven straight three-pointers before Jordan McRae hit a meaningless one with 22 seconds left to play. “They missed shots, and we were able to control the game from there,” Brown said, laying it out in a nutshell.
Cleveland finished with 12 points in the fourth quarter, despite entering with a three-point lead.
Losing to the Nets is not a warning sign for Cleveland, given LeBron’s pedigree and the team’s record. Its insistence on shooting threes–resulting in very few free-throws–is somewhat of a big deal. If the team had three-point shooters, more power to them. They do not, however. LeBron has always been best attacking the rim, and the same goes for Irving. Love has had his most success–ironically not with Cleveland next to James–down low with his back to the basket.
The same lesson applies to the Nets. Just because everyone else is jacking up three-pointers doesn’t mean they should as well. There needs to be a happy medium. Their best rate of success–given the personnel–remains getting the ball down low to Lopez and Young, and playing an inside-out game.
“I feel more and more confident each game being in the position to make plays for my teammates,” Lopez said. “I draw attention, so I’ve just been trying to get other guys going.”
Fortunately for the Nets, Marks comes from the San Antonio school. Tim Duncan never stretched out to start shooting threes, and neither should Lopez.