It wasn’t as though the Clippers set out to be NBA Luddites.
When it comes to identifying the best shots, they subscribe to the same philosophy that currently drives the league.
“We’ve been discussing it from Day One of training camp,” forward Tobias Harris said. “We need to shoot more threes, more layups and more free throws.”
Early returns were positive through nine games. They ranked in the top 10 in the NBA in attempts taken within the restricted area and tops in free-throw attempts, all while taking a league-average amount of the dreaded midrange jumper.
There was just one caveat.
In a league recently conquered by the three-pointer — five years after Houston’s 26.4 attempts a game from deep led the league, that average would now rank 26th — the Clippers were falling behind entering Monday’s matchup against Minnesota. Only Cleveland, San Antonio and Indiana shot three-pointers at a lower frequency.
Knowing that, coach Doc Rivers devised a new practice rule the day before: Only two-point shots taken within the paint would count.
“We were settling for too many contested twos,” Rivers said. “I thought our guys got that message.”
The Clippers (6-4) took a season-high 31 three-pointers and made 14 of them in the resulting 120-109 victory over the Timberwolves.
The 6-foot-9 Harris has altered his game to meet the demand for big men who can operate comfortably away from the basket. He attempted fewer than one three-pointer a game as a rookie and made only 26% of his shots from deep. Eight seasons later, he shoots 4 1/2 a game and connects on 42.2%.
Outside of Harris, Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams, however, the Clippers’ roster isn’t stocked with high-volume threats from outside, leaving unclear whether Monday’s performance willbe the norm or the exception. The rest of the Clippers have combined to shoot 35.2% from behind the arc. That includes a veteran backcourt of Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley, who carry a defensive-minded reputation and an unsightly 26% combined shooting percentage from long range.
It also hasn’t helped that the vast majority of the Clippers’ three-pointers have been contested. They rank near the bottom third in “open” three-pointers taken and in the bottom five in “wide-open” attempts, according to Second Spectrum tracking data that gauges open shots based on distance between the shooter and defender.
For at least one game, however, Rivers’ message was received.
Mike Scott and Jerome Robinson each made a pair of three-pointers off the bench to build the lead in the second quarter and extend it in the second half while Beverley added two more. Not only did the Clippers make 14 three-pointers, they limited the Timberwolves to five.
“I love that,” Rivers said.