2018 NBA playoffs
The Cavs have gone dry from three-point range
by Sam Beech
The Cleveland Cavaliers find themselves in a first round Game 7 scenario with the upstart Indiana Pacers. The three-time defending Eastern champions have looked significantly more vulnerable than it did last season, when they only lost one game before the NBA Finals.
Common sense tells us we can boil Cleveland’s struggles down to a few things: the trade of the former second option of the team, Kyrie Irving; the poor performance of All Star Kevin Love, who has been playing with a torn ligament in his off-shooting hand; a general lack of both experience and talent of the remaining supporting cast; and their collective inability to play solid defense.
Despite their obvious flaws, the Cavs played well enough in the regular season after the All Star break to give the rest of the league reason to believe they were still the team to beat in the East.
Perhaps most shocking development for the Cavs in their First Round series, and the reason why the series is so tight, is their inability to convert from three-point range.
The Cavs shifted towards a more three-point oriented offense since their championship run in 2016, a result of head coach Tyronn Lue’s general “small-ball” philosophy.
The Cavs shot a very respectable 37.2% from beyond the arc in the regular season, good for sixth in the NBA. The efficiency is particularly impressive given that the Cavs ranked forth in the league in three-point attempt rate—the proportion of a team’s field goal attempts that are three-pointers—at 37.9%. The Cavs ability to convert 12 triples a game often made up for the team’s general deficiencies on defense.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, the well has gone dry in this particular series. The Cavs are shooting just 31.9% from long distance in the postseason, which ranks 15th out of 16 playoff teams. This inefficiency is compounded by the fact that Cleveland is shooting threes more frequently in the playoffs than it did in the regular season, with 43.0% of its field-goal attempts coming from distance—second in the playoffs behind the trigger-happy Houston Rockets.
The Cavs are making just 9.7 three-pointers a game in the series, well below their regular season average. The Pacers, who ranked just 25th in the league in three-pointers made in the regular season, are making 10.5 per game—above their season average of 9.0.
Based on their regular season averages, the Cavs should outscore the Pacers by about 9 points per game from the three. Instead, Indiana is outscoring Cleveland by about 2.4 points per game from distance. This creates an 11.4-point swing in favor of Indiana—a potential explanation for why the series is so tight, and why the Pacers have generally looked like the team playing closer to its potential.
Despite the team’s inefficiency from the three-point line, it is hard to see the Cavs deviating from their strategy of shooting a lot from long range. Just as the three ball has been a weapon of their success, it could be the reason for their downfall.
*Statistical support from Basketball Reference and NBA Miner was used in this article.