“Live by the three, die by the three,” goes the old basketball adage. And the Boston Celtics are in mortal danger.
The No. 2 seed and defending conference champion Celtics entered the Eastern Conference Finals with -550 odds to beat the No. 8-seeded Miami Heat, a team that barely escaped elimination in the play-in tournament last month. But after Sunday night’s 128-102 blowout loss, Boston trails 3-0. How did the team that came back from 3-2 down to eliminate NBA MVP Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers in the last round slide to the brink of elimination?
The team is dealing with problems against the Heat such as not creating shots for their stars during crunch time and not forcing turnovers on defense. However, their biggest issue has been an inability to make shots—while Miami’s players are turning into flamethrowers. Through three games, the Celtics have shot just 29.2% from three-point range, compared to 47.8% for the Heat. The difference is even greater on attempts classified by NBA.com as “wide open”—the Celtics have actually generated these shot attempts with more frequency, but unfortunately, they have only converted 14 of their 43 attempts (32.5%) while the Heat have made 20 of their 34 (58.8%).
In every game of this series, the Heat have outperformed the Celtics in three-point shooting, which falls in line with a trend throughout this postseason. Out of the 74 playoff games played, the team with the better three-point percentage has won 59—a winning percentage of nearly 80%.
Three-point shooting is highly variable from game to game, and such variability has an outsized impact when a team relies heavily on the long ball, as the Celtics do. Of the shots Boston attempted, 48% came from beyond the arc this season, the second highest rate in the league and the sixth highest in NBA history. To a lesser extent, the Heat also emphasized threes, ranking ninth in the NBA in attempt rate.
The shooting percentages in this series, though, have flipped compared to the regular season; Boston was the NBA’s sixth best three-point shooting team while Miami ranked 27th. Remarkably, Miami has achieved its postseason three-point prowess without its best shooter, Tyler Herro, who is currently injured. The remaining seven players in the Heat’s rotation who shoot threes—Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin, Max Strus, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Kevin Love and Duncan Robinson—all had below-league-average three-point shooting percentages during the regular season, but have elevated their performance to shoot above the league average during the postseason.
It is unproductive for an NBA team to simply attribute the outcome of a series to shooting luck. After all, not all three-point attempts are equal in quality. In Game 1, for instance, the Celtics’ defenders left corner shooters to over-help on drives, repeatedly giving the Heat comfortable looks from those spots. In Game 3, the Celtics noticeably lacked defensive intensity, especially in transition.
But when calls for the Celtics to “blow it up” this summer grow louder, people should remember that overcoming such a substantial gap in wide-open three-point shooting success in this Miami series would have been an enormous challenge for just about any team.