NBA playoffs 2017: Wizards won't last long without solving 3-point problem

The Wizards know well what their problem is when it comes to defending the Celtics, who have now scored 252 points in two playoff games against Washington. They knew it before Game 1. They knew it before Game 2 and they know it now that we’re heading into a Game 3.

“Their 3-point shooting is a problem,” coach Scott Brooks said. “They’re one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league and they give you two 5s that can shoot 3s in Al (Horford) and Kelly (Olynyk). So we have to do a good job in making sure we are ready to guard the 3-point line. We can’t give them any airspace.”

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As much as Isaiah Thomas — and his 86 points in two games — has been a problem for Washington, as much as a lack of depth is sapping the good play of the Wizards starters, as much as players have lamented the lack of toughness on the roster, what’s really killed the Wizards in the first two games has been an inability to contest Boston’s 3-point shots.

That was evident on one of the key plays in Game 2, a 3-pointer by Thomas with 2:26 to play that cut a six-point Wizards lead to three. Al Horford set a pin-down screen near the top of the key, picking off Thomas’ defender, John Wall. Center Marcin Gortat, conscious of protecting the paint, was late reacting to Thomas and only half-heartedly got a hand up. Thomas had a wide-open look, and knocked it down.

It was the sixth time Thomas had attempted a 3-pointer out of that play, and Thomas made three of them. Just 48 seconds later, Celtics guard Terry Rozier made an open 3 in the right corner that tied the game.

Those were the 12th and 13th wide-open (defined as no defender within six feet) 3-pointers the Celtics had in the game. They finished with 14, and that’s where Washington’s problem is rooted. They know Boston will hoist an abundance of 3s, but too often, those 3s are coming without a defender in spitting distance.

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In all, according to NBA.com stats, 31 of the Celtics’ 75 3-point attempts in this series have come with a defender 4-6 feet away from the shooter, or what the league deems “open.” They’ve gotten 32 “wide open” 3-pointers.

In all, 35.3 percent of all the Celtics’ shots in this series have been 3-pointers either open or wide open — without a defender within four feet. The Wizards were not a great closeout team in the regular season, but only 26.4 percent of the shots opponents took were 3-pointers without a defender within four feet. During the season, 29.8 percent of the Celtics’ shots were open or wide open 3s.

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Gortat, who has been so often stuck helplessly flinging a hand up while Thomas launches a 3, knows the team needs to do better than that. But looking at the numbers, he said he is not sure the Celtics can keep making their 3s at the rate they have in the first two games, even when they’re open.

“They made a lot of shots, they made a lot of shots and that took us down a little bit,” Gortat said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the effort, it’s all about the heart, going out there to play for 48 minutes. I truly believe they’re not going to shoot like that for the next four, five games. I can’t believe they will shoot like that. That is kind of crazy.”

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He may be right. The Celtics shot 37.3 percent on open or wide-open 3s during the season, but 44.4 percent in two games against the Wizards. In the first game, the Celtics were 10 of 18 on wide-open 3s, but that dropped to 6 of 14 in Game 2. On open 3s, the Celtics were 7 of 15 in Game 1 and 5 of 16 in Game 2. That reflects the Celtics reverting to the mean, but it also reflects the fact that forward Markieff Morris, the Wizards’ best close-out defender, played only 11:20 of Game 1 before going out with an ankle injury.

Morris was not 100 percent in Game 2, but he played 27 minutes and was a plus-10 on a night in which only he and Gortat (plus-4) were positives in that category.

Wall credits Morris’ versatility, but he wants the rest of the defense to catch up. “We have to do a better job of knowing which guys are shooters and making them put the ball on the floor,” Wall said. “We can live with contested 2s and contested shots at the rim, but to give them spot-up 3s, that is what this team does.”

Wall can take some solace. The Celtics did the same thing to the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, with 36.0 percent of their shots coming as open or wide-open 3s. Boston’s high-screen game, especially with Horford, is tough to stop. But the Bulls are all home now, and if the Wizards hope to avoid the same fate, they will need to address their open 3-pointer problem.

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