Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics help showcase NBA’s 3-point revolution in conference finals

BOSTON — In the midst of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ series against the Toronto Raptors, as the champs were burying the East’s third seed under an avalanche of 3-pointers, head coach Tyronn Lue was asked when he noticed the league’s 3-point revolution coming.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t really thought about it, but it’s here now.”

Here being the NBA. Here being the Eastern Conference finals. Through the first two rounds, no team has made more triples than the Celtics, hitting 170 in their 13 postseason games. The Cavs have connected on 115, a deceiving number given that they’ve played the fewest games.

In terms of made 3-pointers per game, the Cavs and Celtics are 1-2. Yes, averaging more makes than triple-happy Houston and Golden State.

“We have to understand that that’s one of their main focuses and we have to cover the 3-point line,” LeBron James said prior to the Cavs’ Wednesday morning shootaround in Boston. “I’m looking up at the scoreboard, in Game 7 they took 26 and Washington kind of covered it pretty good. We have to understand that this is something that they do. IT (Isaiah Thomas) is getting up nine, 10 a game. It’s not just him, Avery (Bradley), Jae Crowder, (Kelly) Olynyk, the rest of those guys. (Al) Horford is shooting at a high clip now. So we’ve got to protect the 3-point line.”

Beyond all the other advantages they had during the Toronto sweep, the Cavs’ 3-point edge became more apparent, the deciding factor in the second round. It’s become the Cavaliers’ identity, having James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love draw the bulk of defensive attention while forcing the opponent to make a challenging choice. They term it a “pick-your-poison” offense.

“We run offense based on the players that we have,” Irving told recently. “We have the ability to just space out the floor and that creates a lot more spacing for us to be able to have driving lanes as well as make plays on the 3-point line as well as in the paint.”

The Cavs have six players averaging nearly two made 3s per game in the postseason. Seven of the team’s main rotation guys are shooting at least 40 percent from beyond the arc, including Channing Frye, who is at 55 percent. 

“I think it definitely was back in like 2010,” Frye said of the changes. “Think you look at like the Golden State’s, Phoenix even Denver were really when it started maturing. Now you have individual guys like Kyle (Korver) and myself, we call them specialty guys or snipers. We kind of just do one specific thing and then build from there.

“In today’s game it’s the 3, the free-throw line or the layup. It’s just a proficient game and once that happens you start to get guys like Kyrie who are one-on-one and can score from anywhere and you create space. So now you’re playing four-on-four, three-on-three and with the one-on-one players we have it’s a bucket every time.”

Only once have the Cavs not reached double digits in 3-pointers. The Celtics are finding similar success with space-the-floor lineups. Despite Thomas’ outside shooting struggles, hitting 34 percent from beyond the arc, Boston is shooting 37 percent as team and it has reached double figures in 12 of the 13 games.

Horford, a stretch-forward, has added a new dimension, a playmaker from the post.

“That’s what’s going on in our game,” James said. “Draymond (Green), at one point Joakim Noah was that guy who could facilitate the offense from busting out on the break, you’ve got guys like that that makes their team even more dynamic, when you’ve got a guy that can grab a rebound and bust out on the break and handle the ball and also pass and also score. It definitely helps their team out a lot.”

Lue admitted the Horford addition will keep Cleveland from using the same defensive strategy from the postseason sweep two years ago. His 3-point ability will likely give the Celtics an offensive outlet when the Cavs attempt to smother Thomas. Horford, after shooting 35 percent from deep in the regular season, sits at 58 percent in the playoffs. He made 14 bombs against Washington.   

“Over the course of the last couple years, he’s really improved his 3-point shooting,” Lue said. “He’s always been a great mid-range shooter, even when I played with him back in the day, he can always pick-and-pop and shoot that 17-foot midrange shot. But over the last couple 2-3 years, he’s really extended his range.

“Teams are not getting out there, they’re not respecting him when he’s shooting (58) percent in the playoffs from 3. He’s just put the work in to expand his game, he’s done a great job of doing that. Now you have to respect him mid-range, on the post and 3-point shot. We have to do a good job to make sure we get back to him.”

Cleveland’s previous matchup was largely determined by the 3-pointer. The Raptors couldn’t keep up — despite getting countless open looks. Given the way the Cavs and Celtics have used the deep jumper to claim a spot in the conference finals, it could be the decisive weapon once again.

“It’s all about making shots,” Lue said. “If we’re making shots, we’re a tough team to beat. If they’re making shots, they’re a tough team to beat.”

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