Everybody—Gregg Popovich, Kirk Goldsberry, a dumb Fox Sports personality, an even dumber former Fox Sports personality, some guy on Reddit— agrees: the NBA has a three-point problem. For the 11th year in a row, the league-wide three-point rate increased over the previous season. After a while, a familiar geometric framework becomes visible on nearly every possession: two shooters in the corners, one on the wing, a big man and a guard toddling through a pick-and-roll high above the three-point line. Flip through League Pass on any given January night and teams will be remixing the same basic choreography of pistol sets and delay series. To some, the sheer number of threes has flattened any inspiration or nuance, reducing games to farcical shooting contests waged by contact-phobic pansies. Won’t somebody please think of the ratings?
This, of course, is twaddle.
If this postseason has provided any takeaway beyond Trae Young is magical and I hate and love him, it’s the NBA’s actual stylistic diversity. Despite all the bellyaching about how the NBA has become a homogenized soup of three-point shooting, this year's playoffs reveal the true variety of the game's best teams. Even if every team recognizes that corner threes and layups are the best shots, each has its own vision of how to generate—and prevent—those very same looks. At this point in NBA history, players are too versatile and good to impose a universal approach—the easiest way to waste Giannis Antetokounmpo's singular brilliance is to make him play like Clint Capela.
As such, the Eastern Conference Finals offer proof of how many ways there are to skin a cat. The Atlanta Hawks are a cult of personality formed around Trae Young, the shimmying Wario of the NBA; if Chris Paul is the Point God, Young is the Point Goblin, a defiant troll who delights in your frustration. Like risotto or your mother, Young demands constant attention. He distorts defenses by being on offense.
More, the Hawks have paired Young with eager shooters and alley-oopers, placing polar stressors along the three-point line and at the rim. From this set up, the Hawks lean on Young’s supreme knack for the pick-and-roll to invert traditional defensive responsibilities: big men must scurry from the paint out into thinner air to account for Young’s deep range and floater game; wings and guards are left weighing whether to cling to Atlanta’s shooters or meet marauding giants like John Collins and Clint Capela at the rim. In total, Young and his guard cohort loosen up defensive shells by cajoling defenders out of the paint, opening up clean passing and driving lanes in the process.
While the Hawks depend on their spritely little star to beguile defenses with pluck and moxie, the Bucks opt to entomb their enemies in a crypt of dunks and muscles; they follow a blueprint that football genius F. Scott Fitzgerald could get behind, using giant men to batter and wear down defenses so that their pony team (i.e. backcourt) can go in and make baskets. Giannis Antetokounmpo may dribble like he’s on stilts and shoot free throws like he’s lost both a dare and a contact lens, but those concerns are offset by his interior dominance; he has nearly shot 80% at the rim during these ‘yoffs. When Antetokounmpo chooses to do the things he’s good at instead of the things he’s bad at, he trips claxons blares of panic for the other team—if the unofficial first rule of basketball is to have fun, the second is probably to not let one guy dunk all the time (and the third is to clip your fingernails). Accordingly, in order to not let one guy dunk all the time, defenses attempt to jam as many defenders as they can around the basket, giving the Bucks’ outside players ample time and space.
While the Hawks’ game plan can largely be distilled to TRAE YOUNG sharpied in giant block letters across Nate McMillan’s clipboard, the Bucks are more egalitarian. Beyond Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton can capably fend for themselves, each ranking among the ten most prolific shot-creators during the postseason, per PBP Stats. Although Antetokounmpo is undeniably the alpha, Holiday and Middleton are more than just moral support; Holiday is a canny, burly slasher and Middleton randomly turns into Kevin Durant some times.
Alternately, the Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns can be viewed as not only a referendum on how basketball should be played, but on who should play it. As much as any team in 2021 can, the Suns, harken back to a bygone era. Just as Olivia Rodrigo makes refurbished early-aughts pop-punk for a new generation, the Suns have ridden an offense built around early-aughts shot selection and a non-shooting center to the cusp of the NBA Finals. Still, the Suns’ loyalty to elbow jumpers isn’t merely an exhibition of Boomer Ball Revivalism. Rather, it’s a clever response to how modern defenses are arranged, exploiting the holes in drop coverage. Even more deviously, Deandre Ayton’s presence and general gigantitude makes smaller, switchable lineups untenable for opponents, depriving them the most obvious counter to being carved up by burstless mid-range merchants. As a result, Phoenix can dictate a game’s terms of engagement, locking defenses into coverages that the Suns are designed to beat.
Conversely, ask people to imagine the future of basketball and they’ll probably end up with something close to these Clippers. Against the Jazz in the second round, the Clippers spent the last four games punking Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, continually reminding him he’s not that guy as he struggled to rotate from the perimeter to protect the rim. At their best, the Clippers are bullies, identifying which defenders are too slow or too small and targeting them until they’re mercifully subbed out. The Clippers parlay a surplus of isolation talent into teamwide success; fittingly, they were second in the league in points from assisted three-pointers this season while also scoring the sixth highest proportion of unassisted two-point field goals.
As a foursome, the Hawks, Bucks, Clippers and Suns turn basketball into something close to poetry. Like a sonnet, modern offenses operate within a regulated structure—hunt for threes and lay-ups when possible, maximize any marginal point per possession advantages that are available, place the volta in the final couplet unless you’re Italian. The real beauty, though, is found in all the unique ways that space can be navigated. There are all kinds of love in this world but never the same love twice.