Live by the “3” Die By the “3” Why Hot Outside Shooting Doesn’t Translate to Playoff Wins

As I sit here watching game 5 of the western conference finals between the suns Suns and the Lakers, I have listened to the analysts say that the team who avoids shooting the most 3’s tonight will win the game. And I wonder…Why? How come teams that have success with the 3 pt shot in the regular season see the numbers decline during the post season? Will a team that leads the league in 3 pt % ever advance past the conference finals?

The Only 3 You Should Ever Rely On

First let’s take a look at the past 8 or so years. With the exception of the 2004/05 Phoenix Suns, every team that led the regular season in 3 pt shooting saw a significant decrease in their average once the playoffs rolled around. Interestingly enough, since 2002, every team that has led the regular season in 3pt % has made the playoffs, but none have seen success past the conference finals.

Year Team 3Pt % Playoff 3Pt % 3Pt % Diff. Last Round
2009 Phoenix 41.20% 39.10% -2.10% TBD
2008 Boston 38.30% 36.00% -2.30% 2nd Rd
2007 Phoenix 39.30% 33.80% -5.50% 1st Rd
2006 Phoenix 39.90% 37.90% -2.00% 2nd Rd
2005 Phoenix 39.90% 39.10% -0.80% Conf Finals
2004 Phoenix 39.30% 43.60% 4.30% Conf Finals
2003 Sacramento 40.10% 34.80% -5.30% 2nd Rd
2002 Milwaukee 38.30% 37.30% -1.00% 1st Rd

But why do these sharp shooting teams drastically cool off once the hot lights of the playoffs shine upon them? The answer is simple – Whether you believe that defense wins championships or not it is no surprise that playoff teams play defense at a much higher level than teams that miss the cut. Another reason is that as the season progresses, players tire. Legs get weak and the precision needed to regularly hit shots from beyond the arc just isn’t there. Playoff teams saw nearly a 2% drop in their 3pt percentage compared to the regular season. That means that these teams are losing 6 points per 100 shots just from the 3pt line alone. And in the playoffs, six points can mean the difference between a W and an L.

Phoenix is a perfect example of how hot 3 point shooting cannot sustain playoff runs. Over the past 8 years, the Suns have led the league in shooting from beyond the arc six times. And only twice have they advanced past the 2nd round. History does not bode well for them this season either. The games they have won in this Conference Finals Series have been dominated by mid range shots and consistency in the paint from Amare’. Relying on the 3 pointers is making them one dimensional and the defense doesn’t have to work as hard to play defense.

Maybe one day a team will effectively win a playoff series by three pointers alone, but until then, these teams will have to be content with their regular season accolades.