Raptors’ defence overshadows power of three-ball

Kawhi Leonard had 20 points and 11 rebounds as the Toronto Raptors easily beat the Brooklyn Nets 122-105.

TORONTO — It’s definitely not this reductive. But, fundamentally, the NBA’s three-point revolution comes down to kindergarten mathematics. It is widely understood that three is more than two. Thus, if you’re a basketball team and you want to score a lot of points — often a prerequisite to winning games — you ought to try to score three of them as often as possible. It’s just more efficient. It gets you there faster.

Of course, it’s not so easy. Three-pointers are harder to hit than two-pointers. You’re pretty far from the basket. On the perimeter, it can be difficult to get open. There are a lot of really tall dudes throwing their really long arms and really big hands in your way. And shooting is a lot like hitting for a baseball player. Sometimes you get hot and can’t miss. And sometimes, for whatever reason, you lose your feel for it completely. It can be maddening.

But, these days, most NBA teams are willing to accept the increased degree of difficulty, and increased level of variance, for the increased reward when it’s going well. Everyone’s letting it rain. And if you’re hitting a decent percentage, you’re probably going to win more often than not.

Stream all Sportsnet games of the NBA Finals as the Toronto Raptors take on the Golden State Warriors for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Plus, get the Stanley Cup Final, MLB, IndyCar and more.

That’s not why the Toronto Raptors crushed the Brooklyn Nets Friday night, 122-105. The win had much more to do with the Raptors sorting out some early defensive issues on the fly, and getting one of the most complete bench efforts the team has seen all season, as Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, and Greg Monroe all finished with double-figure scoring and at least one assist each.

Until Jonas Valanciunas is back in action — he’s still weeks away — those five will be the Raptors’ second unit. Toronto’s coaching staff has been running the group through extra work before and after practices of late and, in games like Friday’s, you can see it paying off. The 60 points the reserves scored against the Nets were only two shy of a season-high.

“It’s taken us 45 games to figure it out,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “But it looks like, if we’re healthy, that’s the group. It should be a good group. It really should.”

But back to the three-pointers for a minute. When the NBA adopted the three-point line for the 1979-80 season, teams attempted only 2.8 three-pointers per game. A decade-and-a-half later, in the 1994-95 season, teams suddenly began attempting 15.3 per game — a more-than five shot increase on the season prior — marking the end of the single-digit era.

This season, teams are attempting 31.1 per game, the most ever. It marks the ninth consecutive season in which three-point attempts have increased league-wide. Currently, only two teams are attempting fewer than 25 three-pointers per night. Only five seasons ago, just four teams averaged 25 or more.

And how does Toronto fit in? The Raptors are among the top-10 teams in the league when it comes to three-point attempts (33 per game), but among the bottom-10 when it comes to three-point percentage (they came into Friday’s game converting 34.4 per cent of the time).

The magic number for Toronto and three-pointers, it appears, is exactly what they’ve been averaging — 34 per cent. Coming into Friday’s game, the Raptors had gone 20-3 in games that they shot 34 per cent or better from beyond the arc. They were 11-9 when they didn’t. Friday, they were shooting 34 per cent from three until the final minute, when they missed three consecutively and dropped to 31 per cent. Funny, that.

For a while there, the Raptors were struggling mightily to convert from distance. They shot below their magic number in 10 of the 15 games they played in the month of December. Accordingly, it was the worst month Toronto’s had this season, as they went 8-7 and lost their grip on the Eastern Conference’s top position.

But since, things have begun to normalize. Toronto was above the 34 per cent mark in three of five January games coming into Friday night, winning all of them, including a pair of nights when they shot 45 and 52 per cent while making more than 30 attempts.

“The winds of change,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said before Friday’s game. “I just think it took time. We stay with it. You keep giving guys confidence. You look at the shots and you evaluate them pretty closely and they look like they’re pretty good. You tell those guys to make them and keep taking them. Let’s make sure we’re taking the right ones and most of them are the right ones. These are the ones we want to take in the film sessions. And we’re going to step into them and start making them. And we finally started doing that.”

Friday, Toronto’s first points came on a three, as a beautiful series of passing and movement freed up Kyle Lowry in the corner for a wide-open look. Fred VanVleet then came off the bench and hit a pair of his own. But Toronto finished the quarter with only seven attempted, which isn’t enough over the course of a game. It’s a reason why the Nets surged ahead early.

Another is that the Nets have been playing pretty well of late, winning 13 of 17, including victories over the Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers, a pair of first-rate teams. Perhaps you hadn’t noticed. Nurse had.

“It’s a good team, man — 13-and-4 in their last 17. Somebody should talk about that,” Nurse said before the game, praising a team that could very well end up an opponent in the first round of the playoffs. “They’ve done a great job of handling injuries, playing their system, playing hard, making shots.”

And so maybe it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise to see the Nets up by seven after a first quarter in which they shot 50 per cent from the field and 6-of-10 from beyond the arc. Again, the three-pointer was the difference. Over and over, Brooklyn would penetrate the paint and kick the ball out to the perimeter, where Raptors defenders were slow to recover and disrupt clean looks.

The difference in the second quarter? The Raptors clamped down defensively, limiting Brooklyn to 1-of-5 shooting from range. And at the other end, Toronto started hoisting, and making, more threes, including four in the final three-and-a-half minutes, which helped the Raptors win the quarter, 36-18, and take a commanding 11-point lead into halftime.

It continued in the third, as Danny Green hit a spot-up three just a couple of minutes in, forcing the Nets into an early timeout that ultimately coincided with the end of the game’s competitiveness. The Raptors let loose from there, putting up 35 in the quarter while aggressively closing out on Brooklyn shooters again, limiting the Nets to 1-of-7 from range in the quarter.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

In the end, the effort was comprehensive. Kawhi Leonard had 20 points and 11 rebounds; Pascal Siakam had 16 and 6; Serge Ibaka, 14 and 9. Eight players finished with double-digit scoring, including five off the bench. Of Toronto’s 48 buckets, 32 were assisted. And, of course, thanks to a couple of bad C.J. Miles misses in the dying seconds, the Raptors hit just below 34 per cent of their three’s, ruining a perfectly good narrative.

There’s a lot more going on in an NBA basketball game than just making or missing long-distance shots. The Raptors can win when they shoot below 34 per cent from range (clearly), and they can lose when they shoot above it. It can’t be that simple. But sometimes it is.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.