There were plenty of reasons the Boston Celtics were able to come into Philips Arena and win Saturday’s game over the Atlanta Hawks, 110-99, but a primary concern was the Celtics’ three-point shooting. Boston finished 16-for-34 from beyond the arc, their second-best performance of the season from three (they made 14 of their 29 attempts against the Knicks in October). This has become a theme for the Hawks over the past several years, as head coach Mike Budenholzer’s scheme has always required the players to collapse into the paint and give up outside jumpers. This defensive philosophy becomes more dangerous with each passing year, as opponents shoot with more frequency from three and shoot a higher percentage from long range.
Of course, not all three-point attempts are the same. Perhaps the Hawks give up threes that are contested and not going in at a high rate overall, even if Boston was able to knock down 47 percent of their attempts on Saturday night. Well, one of those things is true: Atlanta’s opponents are shooting below average from behind the arc, per Cleaning the Glass. As for the quality of those shots, the Hawks aren’t doing a great job contesting, especially on the best three-point shots of all: catch-and-shoot jumpers.
The Hawks give up the second-most catch-and-shoot jumpers in the league as a percentage of overall possessions, which, on average, are a good result for the opposing offense. The league as a whole gives up a 106.5 offensive rating on catch-and-shoot jumpers—an offense consisting entirely of catch-and-shoot jumpers would finish 16th in the league in points per 100 possessions, just ahead of Brooklyn and New Orleans. Open catch-and-shoot jumpers are even better for the offense—teams score 114.7 points per 100 possessions on open catch-and-shoot jumpers, which would be just behind the Golden State Warriors for the second-best offense in the league.
With that in mind, constricting opponents’ open catch-and-shoot jumpers seems like a good defensive strategy. Atlanta doesn’t do that—the Hawks gladly give up these open shots, relying on their opponents to miss. When they do, it looks great, but when they face good teams, it doesn’t happen as often. Just ask the 2014-15 and 2015-16 Hawks, who were swept out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers in consecutive seasons because the Cavaliers had more open threes than they knew what to do with. Nothing has changed; 12.1 percent of all opponent possessions have ended in an open catch-and-shoot jumper against the Hawks this season, the second-worst mark in the league.
The only thing that hasn’t completely buried the Hawks this season is that their opponents just aren’t hitting those shots. Atlanta is second-best at “defending” these open catch-and-shoot jumpers, which essentially means that they’re getting lucky that teams aren’t making the great shots they’re generating against the Hawks. Opponents are scoring a putrid 97.7 points per 100 possessions against the Hawks on these open catch-and-shoot jumpers, 17 points per 100 possessions below average. One might argue that the Hawks are smart about who they let shoot from outside, but diving deeper into that data further indicates that the team isn’t doing anything special to further that goal.
The players who are shooting these high-efficiency shots against Atlanta aren’t teams’ worst shooters. The average opponent to whom the Hawks cede an open catch-and-shoot jumper scores 1.169 points per shot, a higher mark than Golden State’s league-leading offense produces. Players who produce a 116.9 offensive rating are suddenly producing a 97.7 offensive rating against the Hawks on open catch-and-shoot jumpers—on shots against non-Atlanta opponents, those same players are hitting a 119.5 offensive rating, which would be far and away the best team-wide offensive rating in NBA history. Any argument that the Hawks are letting bad shooters shoot those shots rings hollow.
Against Boston on Saturday, Atlanta gave up ten such open catch-and-shoot jumpers. Eight of them went to quality shooters, with Marcus Smart, who is scoring an abysmal 0.652 points per open catch-and-shoot jumper, shooting the other two. Other than Smart, the Hawks gave up shots to Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier, all of whom produce at an above-average level on open catch-and-shoot jumpers. The Hawks began their regression to the mean against the Celtics, as the visitors scored 12 points on those 10 shots, which is right about in line with how well they “should” be scoring based on the league-wide average.
Conceding a ridiculously low efficiency on open catch-and-shoot jumpers is the very definition of lucky. An uncontested jumper is one of the best opportunities an offense can reasonably generate, the Hawks give up a ton of them, and while their opponents haven’t made them pay yet, the regression is coming.
All statistics are courtesy of Synergy, unless otherwise noted.