The Triumph of Pace and Space: Team A vs Team B
How do you win a basketball game? The most basic answer to this question is to score more points than your opponent. How would you do that? Well, you score more points. Most people will tell you that you’d have to shoot a better percentage from the field and keep your opponent from shooting a higher percentage than you in order for you to score more points than your opponent. So, let’s do an experiment. Below are stats from two teams who faced each other in the 1st round of the 2018 playoffs:
Based solely on these numbers, you’d think Team A is the better team that ultimately scored more points. Team A has a better shooting percentage in each category when compared to Team B. Team A also wins the defensive rebounding battle, thus limiting 2nd chance opportunities. Team B averages a few more attempts per game, but considering the difference from the field goal percentages, they probably needed them more. Team A seems to have the obvious advantage in the series and probably beat Team B, right? Team A was the Minnesota Timberwolves and Team B was the Houston Rockets. For those that don’t know, the Houston Rockets beat the Timberwolves in 5 games, with 3 of the 5 games ending in lopsided results.
So how was this possible? How did a team that shot worse from the field and allowed more offensive rebounds win a series? To answer this question, we’d have to redefine what it means to score more points. So, originally, every shot in basketball, no matter the distance, was worth 2 points. This all changed when the 3pt-line was introduced to the NBA in 1979. When it was first introduced, the 3pt-shot was nothing more than a novelty shot. Teams still heavily favored dominant low-post players over shooting wings and guards, thus a big-man who can post up was the most valuable player to a team. This line of thought continued its dominance until the mid-2000’s, when coaches like Mike D’Antoni and Erik Spoelstra introduced the concept of “Space and Pace” into the league.
So, what is “Space and Pace?” “Space and Pace” is an offensive philosophy that revolves around pushing the ball up the floor as much and as fast as possible, while also spreading the floor with 3pt shooters in as many positions as possible. Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns accomplished this by having an elite playmaker in Steve Nash, surrounded by undersized 3pt shooters in every position and a center whose only responsibilities were to run the pick-and-roll, collect rebounds, and protect the rim. Using screens set up by supporting players, the primary ball handler would try to attack the paint, set up the roll man, or dish out to a shooter on the perimeter when a wing defender comes to provide help defense. Almost 10 years after Mike D’Antoni left the Phoenix Suns, he is once again dominating the league with this offense as the head coach of the Houston Rockets; only this time, he has two elite playmakers instead of just one.
Now that we know what “Space and Pace” is, how did it help the Rockets beat the Timberwolves? Theoretically, they would relatively have the same amount of possessions per game, which would theoretically lead to the same amount of scoring attempts, right? Yes, that is how basketball works. Extra possessions are most commonly generated through offensive rebounding, which the Timberwolves seemed to have the advantage in. The Timberwolves are a very traditional team. They have bigs and wings that can spread the floor with 3pt shooting, but Tom Thibodeau likes to focus on midrange shots and low-post offense. To better illustrate this point, here is a breakdown of play-types and shooting areas for the series:
As you can tell from the data, the Timberwolves run a lot of low post action, and attempt much more 2s than 3s; while the Rockets shoot more 3s than 2s and run more pick and rolls. Even though the Rockets are running more plays than the Timberwolves that get their players more open looks, they still seem to be hitting less of those shots than the Timberwolves. So how did the Rockets win? Through the sheer volume of 3pt shots attempted and made.
When you first start learning numbers in kindergarten, one of the first things you learn is that 3 is worth more than 2. The Rockets in this series attempted 217 3pt shots and made 75 of them, roughly equating to about 1.04 pts per attempt. The Timberwolves shot 109 3pters and made 45 of them, equating to about 1.24 pts per attempt. The Timberwolves were more efficiently shooting the 3 ball better than the Rockets, but what hurt them was their 2pt attempts. The Rockets only attempted 223 2pt field goals but made 121 of them; equating to 1.15 points per attempt. The Timberwolves, on the other hand, relied heavily on 2pt shots, shooting 304 attempts and only making 145 of them; equating to about 0.95 points per shot. The archaic style of the Timberwolves offense only netted them 1.03 points per shot; while the Rockets, despite making shots at a less efficient rate than the Timberwolves, had 1.06 points per shot.
It doesn’t matter that the Timberwolves shot more efficiently from 3 if they only shoot 26.4% of their shots from 3. It doesn’t matter that the Timberwolves outscore the Rockets inside the 3pt line when they only net 0.95 points per shot. The only thing that matters is scoring more points than your opponent; and with the old-school style of offensive basketball that the Timberwolves play, it’s pretty obvious why they didn’t stand a chance against the Rockets. In a couple of years, their style of offense will become completely obsolete. The remnants of this archaic offense will have to adapt or abandon all hopes of ever winning a championship. This is the death of old-school basketball and the triumph of “Pace and Space”.
(All statistics courtesy of or concluded using NBA.com)