NBA playoffs: The eye-popping decline of scoring at the rim

In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Boston’s opening play was lifted out of a lazy pick-up game. It started with Celtics point guard Marcus Smart dribbling past the halfcourt logo with Al Horford jogging past him toward the left block. On his way there, Horford brushed past Celtics forward Grant Williams, who sauntered up to the wing.

It’s technically acceptable to say Horford “set a pick” for Williams, but that doesn’t really describe what happened because the Bucks responded as if the game hadn’t even started. Neither Brook Lopez (on Williams) nor Giannis Antetokounmpo (on Horford) budged until Williams caught Smart’s pass behind the three-point line, squared his shoulders and released the ball, which went in. Over the next 47 minutes, Williams launched 17 more threes and made six, while Milwaukee opted not to adjust.

To some this might seem like a curious decision. Williams averaged 3.4 three-point attempts per game during the regular season. He also made 41.1% of them, which was second-best on the team. But whether he was standing in the strongside corner or had enough time above the break to check his shoe laces, test the wind and line up the ball’s seams, Milwaukee didn’t care. Those shots were fine so long as Lopez got to stand in the paint and deter close-range finishes from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

“It’s almost like a make-or-miss situation, or a gamble on their part to make you prove it from the outside,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka recently said. “And if you have an off shooting night it benefits them. If you have a hot shooting night you usually win.”

This has been the Bucks’ foundational strategy since Mike Budenholzer was hired. But with only 12.1% of Boston’s shots coming at the rim—their lowest rate of the season up until that point—that Game 7 also punctuated a larger trend seen throughout the last six NBA playoffs. As three-point rates rise, shots taken at the basket are in decline. The scale at which they’re tried has dropped in each of the last six postseasons and, at only 23.9% after Game 4 of these Finals, are lower than any point in at least 22 years. Put another way: During the 2017 playoffs, nearly a third of all shots came at the rim. Now, it’s less than a quarter. (There is also a decline during the regular season, but, at 28.9% this year, it’s much less pronounced.) 

The numbers are the numbers, but there’s no simple way to explain why shots at the rim are dropping in the playoffs, during an era when driving lanes have never been so wide, on floors that are increasingly populated by wings, guards and under-sized bigs who can put the ball on the deck and drive closeouts. Instead, a combination of factors tells the story—from aggressive defenses that prioritize rim protection to offenses that are willing to take what the defense gives as they drive and kick until the right shooter gets a quality shot.

Throughout this run, the Celtics have seen it all. And their coach has a theory on why getting shots off at the rim has been an increasingly tricky proposition for his team, which features an offense that really wants to finish at the basket.

“A lot more switching prevents guys getting downhill to the basket,” Udoka says. “We played some quality teams with rim protectors in Milwaukee and Miami. And so a big part of that deterrent is to protect the paint and make you beat them from the outside. We saw how that worked in our favor against Milwaukee. These teams more so than ever are loading up the paint. Not just with a rim protector but everybody helping off specific people, to protect the paint.”

A lot of this is dictated by teams that are locked in to take certain looks away. Defenses that can’t build a moat around the restricted area with humongous human obstacles like Lopez and Giannis are over helping more and more off the perimeter to control what they can.

“I think there’s an increased priority in protecting the paint because three-point shooting is so good,” Warriors forward Draymond Green says. “It goes back to the Steph Curry effect. If you can constantly get into someone’s paint, then the world opens up. Then I [also] think the game is just much more athletic than it was before … the overall length of guys in this league, it just makes it so much tougher to get to the rim and finish. I think that’s a huge change in this game.

“Then also teams are hunting more threes. So even the priority for most teams, it is to get in the lane and kick out for a three, as opposed to getting in the lane and finishing at the rim or getting to the lane and getting to your mid-range. I think that adds to the drop as well.”

Former NBA coach and current Turner analyst Stan Van Gundy agrees with that last point. The steady reduction of shots at the rim has as much to do with revised offensive philosophies as it does defensive schemes. “Instead of challenging people at the rim, a lot of times if you get to the rim and there’s help coming, you throw that thing out and shoot the three,” he said. “That approach has certainly changed.”

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In a few ways, Green’s Warriors are more responsible for the drop in at-rim frequency than any other franchise. Shot location bias at Oracle Arena and the Chase Center juices Golden State’s at-rim numbers a bit, but its own predilection for the three-point shot, in addition to the Warriors’ embrace of defensive versatility and dynamic coverages, helped turn the Bay Area into a Petri dish for basketball’s evolution. The Warriors have made switching fashionable and pushed the sport into a new atmospheric layer by going small and surrounding Green with the best shooters in NBA history. A notable path to their success has been the commitment to forcing shots away from the basket.

This has been clear throughout the Finals, especially when the Celtics famously took a whopping 41 threes in Game 1. “Every time we got the ball in the middle, they collapsed the paint and kick-outs were wide open,” Udoka said afterward. “Guys stepped up and made them. We’ll take that all the time. Knowing they’re a little smaller, don’t have rim protection, they do it as a team. That’s a shot they give up a lot of times.” But some of those threes didn’t need to be set up by a drive because Golden State’s help defenders (like Green) were walling off the paint before any penetration could even begin. (In Game 4, only 14.1% of Boston’s shots came at the rim.)

The accelerated migration behind the arc is well known, but not all of the shots that used to come at the rim are now launched from three. Many have become push shots, floaters and short pull-ups. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra doesn’t know why shots at the hoop are in decline. “But I just know [getting to the rim] is difficult,” he says. “You talk about all year long—or the last several years—the shot quality, and you want to get layups, free-throws, threes. Good luck if that’s all you’re trying to get to. In the conference finals and beyond everybody’s just too well drilled in scouting and prep, it just increases tenfold, so you have to make some of these plays in between.”

For 15 years, the rate of shots taken at the rim was steady, bobbing between 30 and 32 percent, even as the number of three-point shots started to climb. The redistribution seen over the past six years can’t solely be explained away by the prolonged three-point explosion. In 2016–17, shots at the rim more than doubled those shorter mid-range looks, 32.2% to 17.3%. Five years later, that 15% gap has been vaporized. In these playoffs, short mid-range shots now account for 24.2% of all attempts taken. Again: shots at the rim are 24%.

“It’s definitely different from when I first got in the league until now. It’s a focus on stopping layups and being there,” Warriors center Kevon Looney says. “They talk about how the league is getting smaller. There’s still guys down there that can really block shots, guys that can jump in and make it tough on guys. … I talk to the guys on the team about that. Some of the guards don’t be understanding when you get a dropoff and you don’t convert it, they kind of be mad at you. A lot of hands coming by, a lot of guys trying to block shots. It’s tough to score down there.”

It’s worth wondering when/if this trend will either reverse course or reach a breaking point, and what it would even take for either of those scenarios to happen. Short of hand checking’s comeback tour (to suppress penetration), the competition committee deciding three-second violations should be two-second violations or playoff teams being able to deploy lineups that contain four or five 40% three-point shooters without getting torched on the other end, it isn’t easy to see an NBA that disincentives defenses from favoring the rim or offenses from chasing as many threes as they can.

When Warriors wing Andre Iguodala is asked why he thinks shots at the rim are in decline, he stares back for a beat before starting his response with a grin. “I don’t know if I could answer that politically correct. There’s just more emphasis on shooting threes. I guess that’s taken away the aggression to get to the basket. … I don’t know, it’s just the way it’s trending with the rules, and hopefully it gets back to where you can see guys finishing more at the basket.”

Hiding interior defenders on poor shooters is not new. There are examples (most notably Golden State sticking Andrew Bogut on Tony Allen in Game 4 of the 2015 Western Conference semifinals) that led to offensive counters (more dribble handoffs set by ignored non-shooters). But some decent shooters are now treated as if they’re a liability. There are of course obvious exceptions on both sides of the ball, but “gravity” and “spacing” are two positive offensive byproducts infused into modern NBA basketball by the three-point shot, typically in reference to how they open up the floor and allow more desirable bunnies.

But by helping as aggressively as defenses are, those terms are becoming slightly less consequential. If this sounds a bit reductive, it is. Of course defenses don’t want to give up open threes to someone like Grant Williams, who made 44.6% of his spot-up tries before the All-Star break. They’d like to run them off the line or, at the very least, make a strong contest. But taking everything away isn’t an option. And from either side’s point of view, layups, dunks, lobs and tips are more efficient than a three. They also yield a lower variance.

As stars set the table for everyone else against defenses that are locked in to slow them down, it’s players like Williams who have to prove, at least for one game, that they can take advantage while being ignored; if the NBA continues down the road it’s on, looks at the basket may eventually become a rare sight.

“The dynamics of the league changed. The rules have changed. Spacing has changed. Players have changed,” Grant Williams says. “You have talent that not only can space the floor but also create and get to the paint. But most of those times when you do, they’re so focused on defending it, that leads to open threes and kickout opportunities. … It’s part of, I feel like, what makes the league great.”

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