Live by the 3, die by the 3?
Ok, first I have to confess that I intended to post this before Monday’s debacle. However, despite a myriad of new problems, the Spurs 3-point struggles persist.
One could argue that considering the Spurs played game 1 without Ginobili, their performance was no worse than expected. After Saturday’s 91-88 loss, I was going to argue that, once again, they didn’t play bad after considering their struggles from long range. None of this was of significant comfort dealing with a 2-1 deficit, but there was much more reason for optimism before the 104-86 implosion in Game 4.
There are many reasons for the Spurs struggles. Manu Ginobili’s injury has clearly been a significant factor and the Grizzlies bigs have also caused significant problems. The most recent loss saw the Spurs unravel and commit 17 turnovers, leading to 20 Grizzlies points. However, 3-point woes are not without blame. After making 8.2 treys per game over the course of the regular season, the Spurs have made merely 20 in the first four games of the series. In the two contests in Memphis, the Spurs came up empty on 26 of 33 3-point attempts. No matter the reason for the losses, being down 3 games to 1 is never promising, but can the three point game help reverse the Spurs fortunes? Or will it contribute to their demise?
Early in the season, I wrote a post that included estimates for reliability of various statistics. After three games, the rate of 3-point attempts was 65% credible for predicting future 3-point rate (meaning that the best estimate of future 3-point attempts combines 65% of the observed rate and 35% of the league average). Scoring differential was 19% credible. 3 point percentage? Only 6%. Coach’s, players and fans would usually be best served to have a short memory regarding game-to-game 3-point accuracy.
Although the predictability of 3-point percentage is typically trivial over a few regular season games, occasionally there are observable circumstances that project future struggles. One could argue that the Hawks strategy of defending Dwight Howard with single coverage has played a large role in the Magic’s 3-point struggles and a 3-1 start. (I am still wary of writing off this series and last night’s game was much more favorable for Orlando.) But from my perspective, the Spurs 3-point attempts in Game 3 didn’t look particularly difficult (San Antonio went 2-15 on 3-point attempts). George Hill took one tough shot. There may have been one or two that were moderately difficult and a couple passes were a little off target, but overall, I see no reason this trend should continue. Admittedly, several attempts in Game 4 looked forced, but most of these difficult attempts were when the game was getting out of hand.
Although the accuracy of the Spurs longball might not need fixing, I am perplexed that the Spurs have taken so few 3-point attempts this series. The Spurs ranked among the leaders in 3-point attempts during the regular season (21.1 per game) and the Grizzlies have surrendered more 3s than all but a few teams (19.5 attempts per game). However, the Spurs have only taken 16.3 3-point attempts in the playoffs. The Grizzlies have actually nearly matched the Spurs in made 3 pointers (20-18) despite the Grizzlies adverse preference for the 3-ball (11.3 per game) and the Spurs ability to prevent 3-point attempts (15.9 per game). Although Manu’s injury might play a part in this drop, it doesn’t nearly explain the disparity between regular season figures. Another contributing factor is that the Grizzlies have focused their rotations on limiting the corner 3.
Long rebounds can often result from 3-point misses, but I don’t think it plays a significant role in Memphis’ fast break. The number of opponent 3-point attempts actually negatively correlates with the Grizzlies true shooting percentage. This negative relationship is even stronger after accounting for margin of victory.
So where does this leave the Spurs? No matter how you look at it, they are still down 3 games to 1, but I still think they are the better team, even after Monday’s spanking. Although the Spurs put themselves in the position where they need to sweep the next 3, ESPN’s NBA Playoff Predictor sets the Spurs odds at just under 1 in 3 and I don’t see much reason to deviate from those odds. Obviously, Ginobili’s health will play a large role in San Antonio’s success. The Spurs have outscored the Grizzlies by 42 in the 212 minutes Ginobili was on the court this season. Memphis has a 70-point advantage in the 177 minutes when Manu wasn’t playing. San Antonio will also need some luck from long range to have a shot at beating Memphis three straight.