The three-point shot is more prevalent than ever before as the NBA moves further into the age of analytics. That reality has given the term “live and die by the three” a whole new meaning, especially for a team like the Brooklyn Nets. With an influx of three-point shooting wings following the trades of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets have shifted away from their historic isolation scoring to a three-point dominated offense.
Their reliance on the three-ball has been glaring during a four-game losing streak. Brooklyn is shooting 31.8 percent on 37 threes per game during the skid, most recently turning in a 9-of-33 performance in a loss to Cleveland Tuesday.
“We’re a team that has to shoot threes,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said following the loss. “That’s how we’re comprised. We have to make them.”
Vaughn has repeatedly emphasized that he wants his team to shoot 40-plus threes per game. The new-look Nets are close to accomplishing that goal, averaging 38.5 attempts in 17 games, the sixth most in the league. They just haven’t been efficient while doing it, ranking 22nd in the NBA at 35.1 percent, a stat that is largely responsible for their 6-11 record.
That low percentage can be attributed to a dropoff from three of Brooklyn’s deadline acquisitions: Cam Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Spencer Dinwiddie. The trio’s three-point percentage efficiency has fallen off a cliff before and after their trades:
- Dinwiddie: 40.5 percent with Dallas – 29.1 percent in Brooklyn
- Finney-Smith: 35.5 with Dallas – 27.4 percent in Brooklyn
- Johnson: 45.5 percent with Phoenix – 34.2 percent in Brooklyn
Despite the dramatic dip in efficiency, Vaughn said he hasn’t seen a decrease in the quality of threes the Nets are generating:
“I get a report every single game about the quality of the shots, who’s taking the shots, where they came from, the likelihood of those shots going in,” he said postgame Tuesday. “Last game, analytically, our shots looked good. I’ll be interested to see what it looked like tonight.”
Johnson shared a similar sentiment Sunday when asked if the midseason transition to a new offense has thrown him and others out of rhythm:
“Nah,” he quickly replied. “They felt good. They’re just not going in right now. That’s life as a basketball player. If it was easy everybody would be shooting threes and making them. You gotta weather storms and continue to shoot.”
Vaughn said that teams are aware of the Nets’ three-point-heavy shot chart, something that was clear during Tuesday’s loss with the Cavaliers running shooters off the line and into the waiting arms of Evan Mobley (6’11”) and Jarrett Allen (6’9″):
“I think teams know we want to shoot threes,” the coach said. “They’re designed, especially those two bigs tonight, to take away some threes and funnel our guards to those two bigs. So we’ve gotta find ways to do it earlier in the shot clock.”
Cleveland funneled Brooklyn’s shooters to their “Twin Towers” frontcourt in several ways. First, they “iced” high ball screens. In this pick-and-roll coverage, the on-ball defender positions his body parallel to the sideline, inviting the ball handler to drive baseline to the waiting big man.
Here the Cavs force the Nets into three difficult mid-range shots using the technique:
Next, Cleveland hounded shooters, notably Johnson and Seth Curry, on off-ball actions. Here Cedi Osman tightly trails Johnson as he attempts to work through “Chicago” action (pindown screen into dribble handoff), leading to a turnover and mid-range miss:
That attention to detail could be seen on scramble plays as well. Here Cleveland funnels Mikal Bridges baseline to Jarrett Allen before he finds Johnson on the perimeter. Caris LeVert aggressively closes out to Johnson, offering him zero airspace. You can hear Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff screaming “no middle” as LeVert angles to push Johnson baseline back to Allen.
On another scramble, Darius Garland closes out hard to Johnson, forcing him baseline to Allen, who rejects his layup attempt:
Mikal Bridges saw the most three-point opportunities during the loss. He struggled, shooting 0-of-8. Bridges’ three-point efficiency played a large role in his offensive breakout after stepping into a lead role with Brooklyn. The 26-year-old shot a team-best 47.9 percent on 5.6 attempts per game during his first 13 appearances. However, he’s fallen back to earth during the losing streak, shooting 7-of-33 (21.2 percent) from beyond the arc.
Brooklyn’s three-point woes during the losing streak have coincided with a decrease in attempts each game:
- at Oklahoma City: 12/41
- vs. Sacramento: 14/39
- vs. Denver: 12/35
- vs. Cleveland: 9/33
Dinwiddie attributed the trend to hesitancy brought on by the struggles:
“I think collectively obviously our three-point shot hasn’t been falling and that turns into guys turning some down,” he said Tuesday. “We have to keep shooting the good looks… It’s still a make-or-miss league and we have to come down and make those attempts.”
Vaughn said he is in constant communication with the Nets’ analytics team to evaluate the frequency and quality of their three-point attempts. And the head coach emphasized that he wants his team to shoot themselves out of their slump:
“We want the looks. I think you gain confidence by making some of those looks,” Vaughn said. “We did attack the rim (tonight) though. That balance of attacking the rim and making the defense collapse while also shooting threes, that’s the holy grail.”
The Nets’ playoff cushion has disappeared following the four-game skid. With Tuesday’s loss, Brooklyn sits just a half-game up on Miami for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Vaughn’s squad will have a chance for revenge during a rematch with the Cavs Thursday before traveling to South Beach for a critical matchup with the Heat Saturday.