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Five out: NBA entering era of 3-point-shooting centers

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In 2014, the Atlanta Hawks snuck into the playoffs with a 38-44 record. Their reward? A matchup with the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, who boasted the NBA’s best defense.

Roy Hibbert, a mountain of a center, anchored Indiana’s defense by using his 7-foot-2, 270-pound frame to wall off the paint.

On the other hand, Atlanta’s starting center, Al Horford, suffered a season-ending injury in December. The Hawks rotated three replacements: Pero Antic, Elton Brand and Gustavo Ayon. Ayon suffered his own season-ending injury in February, leaving Atlanta to choose between a past-his-prime, but veteran, Brand and Antic, a 31-year-old rookie who liked to shoot 3-pointers but converted them at a below-average clip.

The Hawks started Antic – and told him to bomb away.

"Even though Pero wasn’t a great 3-point shooter, we told him to shoot it, because we needed Hibbert out of there," said Kenny Atkinson, who was then a Hawks assistant coach. "That was the only way we were going to score.

"We had to take some risk."

Antic hoisted 42 3s in 170 minutes – the highest rate ever in a postseason by someone who started all his team’s games at center. But he made just 7-of-42, a dreary 17%.

Yet, the scheme worked anyway.

Antic pulled Hibbert from the paint, scrambling the Pacers. Hibbert was lost on the perimeter, and his teammates didn’t know how to play without an elite rim protector behind them. Indiana was on tilt, and its offense collapsed as everyone bore the weight of new defensive challenges.

Atlanta outscored the Pacers by 30 with Antic on the court and got outscored by 37 otherwise. Though the Hawks lost the series in seven games, they pushed the Pacers far more than anyone anticipated.

"That was kind of a little bit of an epiphany," Atkinson said. "This can help. This can help draw a great rim protector away from the rim."

The stretch-five revolution was underway.

Atkinson and the Hawks, coached by Mike Budenholzer, had become full believers. The next year, Horford shot and made more 3-pointers than he did in his first seven years combined. The following year, he again trumped his growing career totals – and he wasn’t alone. The shift spread beyond Atlanta by then.

Anthony Davis also shot and made more 3-pointers last season than he had in the rest of his career combined. So did DeMarcus Cousins, who topped his new career totals again this year. Marc Gasol and Nikola Vucevic did it this year, too.

But perhaps the biggest domino to fall was Brook Lopez.

Atkinson became the Nets’ head coach this season and inherited Lopez, an archetypical center who made just 3-of-31 3-pointers in his first eight seasons. In his first year under Atkinson, Lopez has made 134-of-386 3-pointers (35%).

If Lopez can shoot 3s, what is the limit?

We’re progressing toward finding out.

Centers made 1,479 3-pointers this season – more than double any other year, more than the last four years combined, more than the first 17 years of the 3-point arc combined.

Here are number the of 3-pointers made (orange) and attempted (blue) per game by centers, as classified by Basketball-Reference:

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Season 3P 3PA 3P/G 3PA/G 3P%
2017 1479 4183 1.20 3.40 35%
2016 544 1662 0.44 1.35 33%
2015 331 1020 0.27 0.83 32%
2014 429 1310 0.35 1.07 33%
2013 118 485 0.10 0.39 24%
2012 115 443 0.12 0.45 26%
2011 176 588 0.14 0.48 30%
2010 481 1463 0.39 1.19 33%
2009 368 1080 0.30 0.88 34%
2008 500 1519 0.41 1.23 33%
2007 305 945 0.25 0.77 32%
2006 64 301 0.05 0.24 21%
2005 253 785 0.21 0.64 32%
2004 150 559 0.13 0.47 27%
2003 150 497 0.13 0.42 30%
2002 317 896 0.27 0.75 35%
2001 86 364 0.07 0.31 24%
2000 100 382 0.08 0.32 26%
1999 44 199 0.06 0.27 22%
1998 128 535 0.11 0.45 24%
1997 219 686 0.18 0.58 32%
1996 148 528 0.12 0.44 28%
1995 247 799 0.22 0.72 31%
1994 74 339 0.07 0.31 22%
1993 91 353 0.08 0.32 26%
1992 101 396 0.09 0.36 26%
1991 117 504 0.11 0.46 23%
1990 197 677 0.18 0.61 29%
1989 170 607 0.17 0.59 28%
1988 34 191 0.04 0.20 18%
1987 12 101 0.01 0.11 12%
1986 16 129 0.02 0.14 12%
1985 11 129 0.01 0.14 9%
1984 21 147 0.02 0.16 14%
1983 18 139 0.02 0.15 13%
1982 22 112 0.02 0.12 20%
1981 14 88 0.01 0.09 16%
1980 10 95 0.01 0.11 11%

For the first time in history, the average NBA game featured a center making a 3-pointer. But the opening weekend of the playoffs sent the trend into overdrive.

In eight Game 1s, centers combined to shoot 12-for-16 on 3-pointers (75%).

That doesn’t even count all the time teams used players listed at forward, like Serge Ibaka and Draymond Green, at center – a strategy that becomes much more popular this time of year. Teams have embraced small ball more quickly than positional designations can keep up.

"A stretch five," said Grizzlies coach David Fizdale, who implored Marc Gasol to become one, "is a serious luxury."

Enjoy it while it lasts.

It wasn’t long ago that stretch fours were a novelty. Teams had to create special game plans to defend them, because they popped up on the schedule so irregularly. Now, it’s a change of pace when a team starts two traditional interior bigs.

Stretch fives are the new frontier.

Coaches are quick to point out how much trouble opposing 3-point-shooting centers cause, but not every team has developed its own. As long as the former remains true, the latter will change.

The current crop of high-volume stretch fives all have their own origin stories. Davis started shooting 3s under Alvin Gentry, who saw the value of a playmaking center while coaching Draymond Green with the Warriors. Cousins didn’t like being labeled a center and wanted to expand his game. Gasol listened to Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant when Miami – due to injury – learned the value of small ball and then turned Chris Bosh into a center. Vucevic played for Frank Vogel, who coached that Pacers team torched by Antic.

Eventually, there won’t be anything special about a center who shoots 3-pointers. It’ll be the norm.

To be fair, it was hardly unpresented pre-Antic. Mehmet Okur, who retired in 2012 is the all-time leader in 3-pointers by a center (460). Channing Frye set the single-season record for 3-pointers per game by a center (2.1) in 2010, when he played for Gentry’s Suns. That broke the record by Al Harrington for the 2008 Warriors (1.9).*

*Counting only seasons players were listed as centers by Basketball-Reference

That 2010 Phoenix team, coached by Gentry, was still running Mike D’Antoni’s spread scheme. Harrington was primarily a forward during his career, but then-Golden State coach Don Nelson frequently used him at center.

D’Antoni and Nelson were seen as mad scientists, bending basketball into an unholy style. But they were actually visionaries not appreciated in their time.

Stretch fives have not become conventional, but they’re no longer such a rarity. Nine centers made more than one 3-pointer per game this season. No more than three had done that in any other year.

Here’s every center ever to average more than one 3-pointer per game:

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Other players could join their ranks next season.

Big forwards who already shoot plenty of 3s, like Ibaka and Kristaps Porzingis, could soon be primarily centers. Young stretch fives like Myles Turner could take more 3s in bigger roles. Centers with established mid-range games – like Robin Lopez, Brook’s twin brother – could venture beyond the arc.

There’s so much incentive to experiment.

It’s not just the added value of a more efficient shot than a long two. It’s not even just the value of generally spacing the floor.

It’s that centers are often the best rim protectors, so there’s exponentially more value in a stretch five pulling an opposing center from the paint than a stretch four pulling an opposing power forward from the paint.

Stretching the floor has enhanced existing skills for these centers, too. Getting the ball on the perimeter with the threat of shooting has made Brook Lopez an even more effective driver. Gasol can survey the floor from beyond the arc, with a defender pressed closed to him rather than disrupting the passing lanes, and zip dimes from even more angles.

Lopez has embraced his new skill dutifully, though he didn’t want to talk much about himself late in Brooklyn’s awful season. Gasol has unleashed his 3-point shooting with joyous flair – at least once he got going.

"He laughed at first because I told him I want him shooting four a game, and he thought I was joking," Fizdale said. "But as you can see it’s not a joke."

Gasol came close, finishing with 3.6 3-point attempts per game. But there’s always next year.

The stretch-five revolution has just begun.

Who needs good form? Hawks fan nails halfcourt shot for $10k (video)

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Former Hawks owner Bruce Levenson didn’t want guys like this shooting this shot.

I’m so glad this fan got the opportunity. This was Atlanta’s biggest highlight while losing to the Pistons — and John Collins had a nice dunk over Luke Kennard:

Kevin Durant kisses fan hit by ball (video)

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Kevin Durant‘s final line in the Warriors’ win over the Mavericks: 36 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, two blocks… and one kiss.

He has done this before.

Three Things to Know: LeBron James talks to Lonzo Ball and that means… nothing

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) The Cavaliers beat the Lakers… but who cares because LeBron James talked to Lonzo Ball. Everyone loves a good mystery. Apparently to the point of obsession. Thursday night the NBA got its big unanswered question to obsess over:

What did LeBron James tell Lonzo Ball after the game?

Somehow overshadowing the fact LeBron had a triple-double in leading the Cavaliers past the Lakers in an actual basketball game that counts, the topic of discussion has been LeBron pulling Lonzo Ball aside after the game on the court to talk to him, with LeBron wisely pulling his jersey up over his lips to foil lip readers.

This video will be analyzed like it was the Zapruder film.

When asked what he said, LeBron answered: “None of y’all business.” Good. It’s not.

LeBron is one of the few people on the planet who has been in Ball’s shoes — overhyped coming into the league, drafted and instantly thrown into the role of franchise savior. LeBron has lived up to the hype over his career, he’s been through the wars, and he has advice to pass along. LeBron also has praised Ball’s level-headedness and said he liked what he saw in the rookie’s game. Ball had 13 points and 11 assists Thursday to push a Lakers’ team that did not roll over for the Cavaliers, another game where Ball is showing improvement this season. LeBron likely said some variation of what he’s said publicly — “You have the talent kid, just put in the work, honor the game, and ignore the circus around you.”

That will not stop the speculation, rumors, and conspiracy theories. If the political world has proved one thing in the past year or two, it’s that logic and facts will not stop people from believing what they want to believe.

The “LeBron will come to the Lakers” rumors run so rampant that the man himself skipped talking to the media after shootaround or before the game Thursday just to avoid the ridiculousness. The rumors persist despite reports that call it a “longshot.” They persist despite logic — LeBron (and his agent Rich Paul) have made it clear that winning and chasing more rings will be the priorities in deciding where LeBron plays next season, and even if the Lakers could land LeBron and Paul George they are the third best team in the West right now. “But he bought a new home in Brentwood! He’s coming!” Ugh. One thing is for sure: LeBron is not basing his decision based on anything he saw in a December regular season game.

Still, the postgame conversation was fuel for the conspiracy theorists. Whatever. At least some on Twitter just had fun with it.

2) Kristaps Porzingis leaves Knicks game after tweaking knee, to be examined Friday. The scariest injuries are non-contact ones, so when the Knicks’ star forward Kristaps Porzingis went to the locker room Thursday night with one Knicks’ nation held its breath.

The good news after the game is that Porzingis was standing on his leg without a brace or crutch. Both he and coach Jeff Hornacek said it was not serious. Porzingis will be examined Friday and said he felt a little pain when his knee buckled, so the team is being cautious. Hopefully, this really is nothing, but don’t be shocked if Porzingis is out Saturday when Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder come to Madison Square Garden.

By the way, the Knicks beat the Nets behind 27 points from Courtney Lee.

3) Kevin Durant goes off for 36 points, 11 rebounds in another Warriors’ win.Stephen Curry? We don’t need no stinkin’ Stephen Curry.”

Okay, the Warriors aren’t exactly saying that, but they also are 4-0 without the point guard who was having a monster season but went down with a sprained ankle. The main reason is Kevin Durant. (Well, that and a more focused defense.) Durant went off against the Mavericks, taking control of the offense as he has done since Curry went down, scoring 37 points plus grabbing 11 boards and dishing out 7 assists. The Warriors won comfortably 112-97.

That makes eight straight wins for the Warriors, who statistically are on pace for 67 wins according to Ben Falk’s Cleaning The Glass (if you just extrapolate out the Warriors current record it’s “only” 65 wins).

Bucks’ Mirza Teletovic out with blockages in lungs

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Mirza Teletovic is out because of blockages in his lungs.

The team said Thursday that pulmonary embolisms were discovered in both of Teletovic’s lungs (these are usually blood clots, often which have traveled from the legs). While we lack medical details on Teletovic’s case, this is not unlike what sidelined former Miami Heat player Chris Bosh.

The 32-year-old Teletovic consulted with Bucks team physicians after experiencing unusual fatigue earlier this week.

Following a 10-day rest period, Teletovic will begin a supervised rehabilitation program. The team provided no other for what it considers a long-term injury.

Teletovic has missed the last 16 games, including 10 after arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage in his left knee on Nov. 21.

In 10 games this season, Teletovic is averaging 7.1 points and 2.3 rebounds while shooting 46.7 percent from 3-point range. Teletovic has been in the NBA for six seasons.