To win in the N.B.A., it helps to rebound, to block shots and to play defense. But most of all, you need to shoot the ball well. And in the modern game, shooting 3 pointers is one of the most important skills of all.
In their biggest games of the season, Game 7 of the conference finals at home, the Celtics and Rockets simply could not make their 3-point shots.
On Monday night against the Warriors, the Rockets shot a staggeringly bad 7-for-44 from 3. At 16 percent, it was their worst rate of the entire season; they had shot no worse than 26 percent in 16 previous playoff games and 23 percent in 82 regular season games.
Eric Gordon was 2-for-12, which would have looked worse were it not for James Harden’s 2-for-13 performance.
Harden had led the league in 3-pointers (and attempts), this season. And during the playoffs, his marksmanship often led the way to wins: He was 7-for-12 in games against Utah and Minnesota, for example. On Monday, he tried from just about every spot around the top of the arc. Many were good looks. But he could only sink two.
From 6:43 left in the second quarter to 6:28 left in the fourth, the Rockets missed 27 straight 3-pointers, a playoff record. They were 0-for-14 in the third quarter. In that span, they went from a 14-point lead to a 13-point deficit.
The Rockets were missing Chris Paul with a hamstring injury, and they faced an inspired Warriors team that shot 41 percent from 3-point range. But their 101-92 loss might well have been reversed had they simply sunk a few more of those long shots.
The shocking 3-point performance was all the more amazing because the Rockets revolutionized that aspect of the game this season, making 15 per game on 42 attempts, both league highs.
“In that fourth quarter, we had a lot of opportunities,” Harden told The Houston Chronicle. “Three opportunities that we were open that just didn’t go down.” The Rockets were 1-for-7 from 3-point range in the last period.
“They were 16 of 39, and we were 7 of 44,” Coach Mike D’Antoni told The Chronicle. “That’s kind of the tale of it. When they make their little runs, we have to be able to hit threes to keep them at bay, and we just couldn’t do it or didn’t do it.”
A night earlier, the Celtics had a similar disaster from long range.
The Celtics shot 7-for-39 from beyond the 3-point arc on the night, at 18 percent their lowest of the playoffs and second worst all year. While the Celtics did not take 3-pointers at the Rockets’ dizzying rate this season, it was an important part of their game. They were in the top 10 in both 3-pointers and attempts.
Jaylen Brown was 3-for-12 on Sunday, which actually brought the Celtics’ percentage up. Worse was Terry Rozier: 0-for-10. He had never had an 0-for worse than 0-for-5 in his career.
The Celtics led the Cavaliers by one point with six minutes to go. They were 1-for-9 from 3-point range the rest of the game and lost, 87-79.
While LeBron James’s 35-point game deservedly got the headlines, once again the home team could have won by making more 3-pointers.
Defense played a role in the Rockets and Celtics shooting poorly, of course. But ultimately, both teams got many of the shots they wanted. They just didn’t fall.