Remembering when teams would pass on 3-point shots rather than chuck them en masse
The Cleveland Cavaliers highlighted how indispensable the 3-point shot has become in the modern NBA, setting a league record with 25 made 3-pointers in a 123-98 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday.
The rise of the 3-pointer isn’t necessarily new to basketball, especially when you consider the individual and collective efforts by Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors this season. But the shot has become so prevalent league-wide in recent years that it can be difficult to remember a time when the deep ball wasn’t a fundamental aspect of the game.
However, if you go back far enough, you can find a time within the 3-point era where the 3-pointer was not only inessential, but almost completely ignored by certain NBA franchises, to the point where a team once went three consecutive games in a playoff series without attempting a single shot from beyond the arc — and managed to win two of those games.
The last time an NBA team went an entire playoff game without attempting a 3-pointer was the first round of the 1988 Eastern Conference playoffs. The 3-point line had been implemented before the 1979-80 season (it was also used in the ABA during its run from 1968-76), so teams were well aware of the shot’s usefulness by then, but it wasn’t so beloved by the Washington Bullets.
During the 1987-88 regular season, the Bullets took a league-low 138 shots from 3-point range (the Boston Celtics led the NBA with 705, nearly 200 fewer than Curry took on his own this season). Meanwhile, the Pistons had the second-fewest attempts that season with 202, so when Detroit and Washington met in the first round, there was no expectation either squad would rain 3s. And my, did they deliver.
In Game 1, the teams went a combined 0-for-3 from deep, with Washington missing two and Detroit missing one in a 96-87 Pistons win. By Game 2, the Bullets had abandoned the 3-pointer altogether and went the next three games without so much as one long-range attempt, winning two of those games on the strength of 30 points per game from Jeff Malone. (Washington nearly won Game 2 in Detroit, too, and would have won the series in four games had it not been for a late Isiah Thomas game-winner.)
After falling behind early in the decisive Game 5 at the Silverdome, Bullets coach Wes Unseld gave his team the OK to fire away from 3 in an effort to mount a rally, but Washington hit just one of its seven tries — Mark Alarie was responsible for the team’s only made 3 of the series — in a 99-78 loss that saw the Bullets shoot 30.6 percent from the floor.
Overall, there have been 22 playoff games since the implementation of the 3-pointer where a team went without a single 3-point attempt, but none since the Bullets completely wrote it out of the game plan in ’88. And as attitudes concerning the 3-pointer continued to change, that also became true for the regular season.
During the 1988-89 regular season, the NBA had 42 instances of a team playing an entire game without a 3-point attempt. By 1991-92, that number had reduced to nine (four coming from the Celtics), and in 1993-94 there were five. Since the end of that season, there has only been one NBA game where a team failed to attempt a 3-pointer, an 87-80 Philadelphia 76ers win over the Milwaukee Bucks on March 4, 1998.
Led by a 22-year-old Allen Iverson, Philadelphia ranked near the bottom of the NBA in 3-point attempts that season, but was not averse to the shot, taking nearly 10 a game. The Sixers took a minimum of four 3-point attempts in every other game that season, but that particular night, they simply didn’t — and considering that they won the game while Milwaukee went 1-of-10 from deep, it’s hard to argue with the result.
Given the massive stylistic transformation the game has undergone over the last two decades, it’s entirely possible we never see another game like it. The fewest 3-point attempts in a game this season was four by the Bucks in a December win against the New York Knicks, and in the last 10 years there have only been two instances of a team attempting just one 3 in a game (the Atlanta Hawks and LA Clippers each did it during the 2006-07 campaign, and both times they made the shot).
Meanwhile, the 40-attempt game has become increasingly commonplace in the league — Cleveland’s showing Wednesday was the 44th such game this season — and at this point, the only way there’s another 3-less effort is if a coach and his team bent on doing something different make it a point to make it happen.
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.