For a few games there, San Antonio’s defense seemed to be solving the Houston Rockets. After laying a 27-point mollywhopping on San Antonio in Game 1, Houston dropped Games 2 and 3 due in part to crucial defensive adjustments by the Spurs that threw Houston’s potent high-screen game into chaos. San Antonio began planting a rim protector under high screens, threatening to block James Harden if he drove, while keeping everyone else close to their men on the perimeter to discourage the drive-and-kick 3s that power the Rocket offense. It’s a neat little wrinkle in the series.
But Houston can make all of that irrelevant with a wrinkle of its own: the pull-up 3. That’s exactly what the Rockets did at the turning point of Game 4.
With the Spurs trailing by eight with a little less than eight minutes left in the third quarter, LaMarcus Aldridge had switched onto Harden, who was isolated at the top of the key; everyone else stayed home. Harden could have easily driven past the big man and challenged at the rim, but that would be playing into San Antonio’s hand. Instead he stepped back for a pull-up 3. Rockets by 11. The next trip down, Harden peeled off a screen and, with Pau Gasol’s armpit in his face, drained an even more ridiculous step-back. Rockets by 14. The Spurs wouldn’t pull within single digits again.
As the NBA moves more and more of its offense behind the 3-point line, teams are taking more pull-up 3-pointers than ever before. In the playoffs, due in part to 3-point-denying defenses and in part also to playing out more desperate situations, teams are taking even more than they do in the regular season. The Cleveland Cavaliers are attempting more than three additional pull-up 3s per game, with a marginal improvement in percentage; the Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, have made a tiny increase in attempts but a massive improvement in accuracy.
Across the league, stars are turning to the shot more in the postseason. LeBron James is shooting four pull-up 3s per game, up from 2.6 during the season, and making 43.8 percent of them. And after a slow start during the season, Steph Curry is shooting 41.5 percent on nearly six attempts per game. It’s a shot that can bail a team out when first and second options are taken away by the defense.
But no one takes more pull-up 3s than the Rockets. During the regular season, Houston took 13.3 3s off the dribble; Harden alone took 6.8. During the postseason, those numbers have shot up to 18.1 per game for the Rockets and 9.1 for Harden. Harden’s uptick in pull-ups has come with a downturn in makes — he’s gone from hitting 33.3 percent during the season to 28 percent in the playoffs.
Harden’s misses are often offset by the inordinate number of cheap shooting fouls he draws on these 3s, but he’s not the only player to see his accuracy numbers decline in the playoffs as he throws up more pull-ups. Isaiah Thomas shot 36.7 percent on pull-up 3s during the regular season, but is making just 22.9 percent of them in the postseason. Kyle Lowry led the high-volume pull-up 3 crowd1 at 42 percent during the season, but made just 27.6 percent in the playoffs. Same goes for Chris Paul, who fell from 39.1 percent to 31.3. This could just be noise in a small number of games — Paul George and Dennis Schroder both shot much better than their regular-season averages in first-round losses — but the players whose percentages plummeted tended to be the ones for whom the pull-up was the offense, rather than just one facet of it.
There’s no surefire way to take away the 3-pointer in the NBA. Even without Harden pulling shots out of thin air, Houston began to figure out San Antonio’s strategy by using different players to set different sorts of screens. But it’s a whole lot easier to unlock a defense when the answer is as simple as pulling up and taking your shot.