The team that has shot better from 3-point range has won each of the four games of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics. In fact, OG Anunoby's buzzer-beating game winner in Game 3 was the difference between the Raptors shooting better or worse than the Celtics from beyond the arc on Thursday.
The Raptors had a much bigger edge in Game 4 on Saturday, shooting 17-for-44 (39%) from 3-point range on their way to a much more comfortable, 100-93 victory that tied the series at two games apiece. The pivotal Game 5 is Monday (6:30 ET, TNT).
"It's a huge part of the game," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of the 3-point shooting "We're trying to defend 'em at a super high level and challenge 'em, and we're certainly trying to create good ones for our guys to step into and shoot 'em."
To that first part, it should be acknowledged that Jaylen Brown, who shot 42% on catch-and-shoot 3s in the regular season (39% in the playoffs through Game 3), missed some open and in-rhythm looks on Saturday. The Celtics were 7-for-35 (20%) from 3-point range and Brown (2-for-11) attempted five more 3s than any of his teammates.
But, upon review of the film, less than half of the Celtics' 28 misses from beyond the arc were open and in-rhythm. The Raptors did challenge a lot of those 3s, even though their priorities on that end of the floor start with defending the dribble.
"It's always most important that we get 'em in the half-court," Nurse said. "Once you get 'em in the half-court it's probably containing the ball, and trying as best we can to keep the ball in front of us."
These days, with hand-checking disallowed, keeping the ball in front of you often requires multiple defenders. And the Raptors are probably the most aggressive team in the league in regard to putting extra bodies (and arms) in front of the ball-handler. They pinch off shooters one pass away in an effort to both keep the offense from getting all the way to the basket and force turnovers. In the regular season, the Raptors were the only team that ranked in the top five in both the (lowest) percentage of their opponents' shots that came in the restricted area (30%, 5th) and opponent turnovers per 100 possessions (16.5, 2nd).
The other side of that coin is that the Raptors will allow a lot of 3s. But that doesn't mean that they will happily concede those 3s. Yes, there will be some open ones, like the two from either corner that Brown missed in the first four minutes on Saturday.
But no team can contest every shot. And the champs are the best in the league at scrambling out of two-to-the-ball situations, rotating, and contesting as much as they possibly can.
The Film - Help and recover
Yes, it's a make-or-miss league. But not all misses are the same. Here is some of the champs' best work in forcing tough 3s from the Celtics in Game 4:
Pascal Siakam is on the bottom row of the Raptors' 2-3 zone and has both feet well inside the paint when Jayson Tatum throws a dart to Marcus Smart in the left corner. But Siakam sells out and jumps like he would if he was trying to dunk the ball from the free-throw line, running Smart off the catch-and-shoot 3. He even manages to contest the side-step 3 with a quick second jump.
Matt Thomas matches up with Semi Ojeleye in the right corner in transition, but quickly rotates up to stop Tatum with the ball. Tatum swings it to Ojeleye, who elicits another all-out close-out from Siakam. Thomas rotates back to Ojeleye and Lowry rotates to Tatum, whose fall allows the Raptors to reset. Thomas then switches a Kemba Walker-Ojeleye pick-and-roll and is able to avoid the foul on Walker's step-back 3 (though Walker would probably disagree on the avoiding-the-foul part).
Kyle Lowry sinks into the paint to help Fred VanVleet on Brown's drive, but is still able to run Smart off the catch-and-shoot 3 from the left wing. And like Siakam in the first play, he recovers to contest the side-step 3.
The Celtics' after-timeout play has Walker curling to the ball off a Grant Williams screen. VanVleet's pressure pushes Walker's catch far beyond the 3-point line. Serge Ibaka meets Walker on the other side of a Brad Wanamaker screen, Lowry rotates to Wanamaker's pop, and Siakam guards two guys until Ibaka recovers. VanVleet then defends Walker's late-clock iso about as well as one can, though the Raptors do give up an offensive rebound.
The Raptors push a double-drag screen for Walker far beyond the 3-point line. Marc Gasol retreats to stay with Daniel Theis' roll to the rim, but VanVleet is able to contest a potential pull-up 3 from behind. Siakam stays in front of Brown, and when Siakam falls, Gasol steps up and OG Anunoby rotates down to guard Theis. Tatum is open on the right wing, but Anunoby runs him off the catch-and-shoot 3 and the side-step attempt is off the mark. The Celtics do get another offensive board.
Comfortable with the ugly
That is a lot of ridiculous effort on the defensive end of the floor.
"We weren't really switched on to Game 1," Nurse said. "But other than that game I think we've tried hard. I think there's been some effort and some desire and some toughness, and trying to carry it through for most possessions.
"Each possession seems to be pretty critical in a playoff game, and we're getting to the point where we're playing most of the possessions as, we're trying hard. We're making some mistakes and they've got good players and they make shots and some things like that, but we're down and we're trying to compete is the biggest thing."
As seen on those last two plays above, the Raptors' rotations do leave them susceptible on the glass. But their defensive rebounding percentage has higher in the playoffs (76.4%, 7th) than it was in the regular season (72.1%, 22nd). And it's been higher in this series (80.1%) than it was in the first round (73.6%).
Rebounding is important, but the most critical thing you can do defensively is force your opponent to miss shots. The Raptors do that both near and far from the basket. Not only did they rank second in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (59.3%) in the regular season, but they ranked first in opponent 3-point percentage (33.7%).
The Celtics probably won't shoot 20% from beyond the arc like they did in Game 4 again, but they might not shoot 44% like they did in Game 1 again either. And even when the Celtics made 10 corner 3s in Game 1, they scored a well-below-average 106 points per 100 possessions (112 on 106). This series is the first time the Celtics have been held under 110 points per 100 possessions in four straight games since a 2-3 road trip in mid-November.
"That's our foundation," VanVleet said, "being able to get stops. As long as we continue to do that at a high level, we give ourselves a chance to win, and we got to keep meeting the challenge. It's a really, really hard team to guard but I think we are doing a great job trying to meet the challenge."
The Raptors' own offense has had its issues. Toronto ranks seventh offensively out of eight teams in this round. But they're certainly able to win ugly, so consistently good defensively that they're now 45-3 (5-0 in the playoffs) when they've scored at least 105 points per 100 possessions.
"I think we know who we are," VanVleet said Saturday. "I think we're just being OK being uncomfortable and not being pretty. I think we can win in many different ways and I think that we're very versatile and just trying to keep continuing to find ways to win.
"It's not always going to be pretty but I think we're comfortable with how ugly and mucky the game is now. Now we would like it not to be that way but you've got to take what you get and that's a great team that we're going up against, and we'll take any wins that we can get, take any success that we can get. So we put up 100 and we were able to hold them to 93 and that's the name of the game at this point in the year."
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