Why The Celtics Failed To Join Red Sox As Beantown Comeback Champions

It will happen eventually. A team down 0-3 will come back and win an NBA series. The Boston Celtics had an opportunity to do it on Monday but were blown out by the Miami Heat 103-84. And the reason they lost is the variance of the three-point shot.

In the history of the three major North American sports that play best-of-seven playoff series (NBA, MLB, NHL), teams that were down 0–3 in a series have come back to win the series five times; four times in the NHL, once in MLB.

In a series that featured two separate winning streaks, anything was possible in Game 7.

The Power Of The Three

The Heat finished the regular season as the fourth-worst three-point shooting team. They attempted 34.8 threes per game and shot at a below average 34.4 percent. But in these playoffs, they jumped to a well-above-average 38.9 percent from three, attempting 38.5 per game. In the clinching game the Heat shot 14-28 (50 percent) from three.

Talk about variance!

The three point shot is exactly why a No. 8 seed could knock off the top two teams in the conference during a playoff run and why at some point an NBA team will come back from an 0-3 deficit.

It’s boom or bust nature, particularly if a team is on a hot streak can, and often decides games. Basketball is a battle for possessions and you are trading points for those possessions.

The three provides value in two ways. First, it’s an efficient shot. Over the last 20 years, NBA players have averaged 1.05 points per above-the-break three attempts and 1.16 points per corner three shots.

In contrast, players have averaged just 0.79 points per two-point attempt outside of the restricted area. In other words, 100 mid-range jumpers will provide 79 points on average, while 100 above-the-break threes would provide 105.

That’s a 26-point difference. So it’s easy to understand how being up 20, given the prevalence of the three doesn’t mean what it used to. Large leads can be severed quickly.

Defense And Possessions

This is where defense steps in, and the Heat “saved” their best defense for the last game of this series.

Jimmy Butler amped up the intensity on defense with three clean steals in the second half as the Celtics cut the lead to single digits.

An average offensive possession is worth about 1.1 points per possession. Therefore a steal or drawing an offensive foul can be seen as plays that add about 1.1 points of value to your team. This is because you’ve taken an opponents’ possession and, through your actions alone, have reduced the expected efficiency of your opponents’ possession from 1.1 points down to 0 points.

Turnovers, steals, anything that limits your ability to score as a team is a value add to the opponent. Do that a lot over the course of seven games and you’ll win.

Over the last two games of this series, the Heat shot 48 percent from three (28-for-58), the Celtics shot 20.8 percent (16-for-77).

Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla was asked the difference between Game 7 and the games the team won.

“We shot 21 percent from three,” said Mazzulla. “The defense was still good.”

When asked if the Celtics relied on the three too much, Mazzulla gave a succinct answer, “No.”

That’s the recipe for upsetting a higher seed. You must maximize the possession battle, and one of the ways you do that is to convert on threes at a higher rate. Easier said than done.

In this series the team that shot better from three won six of the seven games.

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