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The Cavs’ 3-Point Barrage In Game 2 Was Ridiculous

There are hot shooting nights from downtown, and then there’s the performance the Cleveland Cavaliers produced against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night:

After Mo Williams chucked in one last trey with a shade under two minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Cavs had 25 3-pointers, a record for the most team threes in an NBA game. (Their 45 tries were also the second-most 3-point attempts in a playoff game since 1984 and tied for 12th-most attempts in any NBA game, period.) The barrage propelled Cleveland to a 2-0 series lead and left Atlanta shellshocked and soul-searching.

“What happened? Not a clue,” Hawks forward Paul Millsap said. “A lot of threes … I don’t know what else to say. I am still speechless. … I’m a man who believes anything is possible, and the impossible happened tonight.”

Just how impossibly scorching were those Cavalier shooters? We can quantify a team’s “hotness” using SportVU data that estimates the probability of any given shot being made based on distance and the proximity of defenders, among other variables. A good place to start digging is a team’s track record: During the regular season, Cleveland got better-than-average looks from downtown and was also among the top 10 shot-making teams even after adjusting for the difficulty of its threes. Atlanta’s defense, meanwhile, allowed relatively high-percentage looks from downtown but saw opponents shoot a lower-than-expected average.

FiveThirtyEight: The Cavs really were on fire

After taking all that into account, we’d have expected the Cavs to knock down 15.6 of their 45 3-point attempts Wednesday. That the team made 25 instead meant it had 9.4 “extra makes” relative to what we’d have expected with that (absurdly high) number of attempts.

Although it’s possible to generate these extra threes via better offensive execution, few of the Cavs’ makes came from improving the quality of their looks. If they’d displayed their usual “shot-making” skill and only improved their shot quality as much as they did Wednesday night, Cleveland would have knocked down only 0.1 more threes than expected. The other 9.3 extra makes, then, can be attributed completely to “hotness” — hitting more shots than anyone could have expected, even after adjusting for the particulars of the shots and the track records of the teams involved.

These 9.3 extra makes from hot shooting represent the most in any playoff game since SportVU cameras were installed in every NBA arena before the 2013-14 season and the second-most of any game, period. (The Pacers’ hot shooting in this game netted them 10 whole extra threes!) Here’s a rundown of the hottest-shooting playoff games of the past three years:

5/4/16 CLE ATL 45 25 +9.4 +0.1 +9.3
5/25/15 HOU GSW 32 17 +6.2 -0.3 +6.5
4/21/16 OKC DAL 27 15 +5.8 -0.4 +6.3
4/20/16 CLE DET 38 20 +6.2 0.0 +6.2
4/28/14 ATL IND 27 15 +5.5 -0.7 +6.2
The playoff games with the hottest-shooting teams since 2014

Source: NBA player-tracking data

The big question, though, is whether hot shooting can carry over into future games. And at this point, the answer seems to be an emphatic “no,” at least based on the tracking data SportVU has collected. In cases since 2014 where one team faced the same opponent in back-to-back playoff games, the correlation between one game and the next in extra makes from shot-making1 was -0.011 — in essence, providing zero evidence of a carry-over effect from game to game.

That doesn’t mean the Hawks will be able to take away all the Cavs’ threes in Game 3, as the team Twitter account joked during Game 2’s rout.2


But it does mean the Cavs are probably in for a more normal shooting performance over the rest of the series.

Check out FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 NBA playoff predictions.


  1. On a per-shot basis.

  2. The tweet has been deleted, but it lives on in screengrabs.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.