Seldom used at the start, three-pointer proves shot in the arm for NBA game


Originally, basketball purists considered the three-point shot a sideshow in that red-white-and-blue-balled ABA carnival.

Go ahead, let the Pittsburgh Condors or Anaheim Amigos launch those rainbows, but don't bring it near any respected basketball establishments.

"Nobody was sure about it," said Miami Heat television analyst Jack Ramsay, former coach of the Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers. "I didn't think a lot of it. I didn't like it when it first came in [the NBA.]"

It was during the 1979-80 season that the NBA began awarding an extra point for shots beyond 23 feet, 9 inches.

In the ensuing 15 years, the opinions of Ramsay and many others have changed.

"I think it's great," he said. "It's been a great tactic. It's been a nice addition to the flow of the regular game."

Once considered poison to purists, the three-pointer has been embraced.

It is a staple of NBA offenses and not limited to frantic late-game strategy where coaches pull the designated gunner from the end of the bench and take a chance that every now and then he can shoot them back into a game. The three-pointer has evolved into a useful and dangerous shot and now it's as much a part of the game as the layup, dunk and two-handed chest pass.

Teams still use it to catch up quickly, but they also use it to extend leads and separate themselves from a close opponent.

"It's still a low-percentage shot, but obviously, a very big weapon if you've got guys who can make it," New Jersey Nets coach Chuck Daly said.

Some teams now employ two and three starters who are threats to make the shot. Heat coach Kevin Loughery said Glen Rice and Steve Smith have carte blanche to launch the three-pointer. Reggie Miller fills the same role for the Pacers.

"When you have the guys who can really shoot it, you have designed plays over the course of the game, not just in crunch time," Rice said.

It wasn't always so.

Former Heat guard Jon Sundvold, who set the NBA record for best three-point percentage during the Heat's inaugural season, said the shot nearly was forbidden during his early years in the league.

Sundvold played one season with Fred Brown in Seattle, yet "neither one of us shot it unless we were way behind. And 'Downtown' Freddie Brown was a great shooter."

Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas, who holds the record for most three-point attempts in a game without making any (nine), said the three-point reluctance in the early 1980s stemmed from a lack of proficiency.

"But as players started developing the outside shot more, the coaches started putting it more into the offenses," he said.

Houston Rockets guard Kenny Smith said when he was teammates with Danny Ainge in Sacramento, Ainge talked about how Larry Bird was the first to use the three as a finishing touch. Boston might make a mild run to go up seven, then Bird would trail a fast break, stop behind the arc and drop the curtain.

"The biggest thing is timing," Smith said. "If you take it at the correct time, it can be a great weapon. The Celtics teams were probably the first ones to use it as a demoralizing weapon. Be up five and go up by eight. Other teams shooting it weren't as prevalent then."

Said Ramsay, "Because [Bird] was successful, Boston kind of adopted it as part of their game. I can remember Chris Ford doing the same kind of thing."

This season, the Heat has been victimized several times by a storm of threes. Not just game-enders, but the in-the-flow blows as well.

Trailing the Rockets 67-62 after three quarters Dec. 14 in Miami, the Heat was wilted by a Vernon Maxwell threefest. The former Florida Gator nailed three threes over a 1-minute, 49-second stretch at the outset of the fourth quarter. He then dropped a final three that put the Rockets up by 13 with 8:08 to play.

After the Heat took a 17-point lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the fourth quarter Dec. 16, guard Mark Price warmed up from long range. Price, peerless at shooting the three on the move, made three over the final six minutes as the Cavs closed the deficit before the Heat rallied to win.

One of the Heat's low points this season was tied to the three. In a 118-98 loss to hapless Detroit on Jan. 21, Pistons guard Joe Dumars nailed three subtle threes down the stretch that seared the Heat psyche.

Thomas agreed that the three as spirit-breaker now plays a major role.

"We used it as something to more or less demoralize people as opposed to using it at the end of the game," he said. "If you can take a 12-point lead to 15 or a [late] six-point lead to nine, that's the game."

Even Price, one of the game's gentlemen, spoke of the shot in tough tones. "I look to do that at times in a game, to really hurt somebody with a three," he said.

For some, attempting a three isn't such a conscious act. Rice and Kenny Smith, for example, never look to see where their feet are in relation to the arc. It has been said that Rice makes more toe-on-the-line threes than anyone in the NBA.

Yet others, like Maxwell, think three throughout.

"If it's there for me during a game, I'll take it," he said. "If we need it, like we're on the road, down one and I have a three or an open lane to drive to the basket, I'll shoot the three because it really just breaks a team's back when you hit a three like that."

There are several reasons for the increasing use of the shot: The addition of the three-point shot (albeit shorter) in college, the popularity of the Long Distance Shootout on All-Star Weekend and, perhaps most of all, the realization by NBA coaches that the shot is a valuable tool.

Also, many more players can make the shot consistently. It's not just for the Sundvolds and Darrell Griffiths and John Roches anymore. Charles Barkley and Dominique Wilkins are capable of three-point binges. The 6-foot-9, 256-pound Karl Malone hit a game-winning three at Miami Arena earlier this season.

"It's become a big weapon in my time in the NBA, as much as the dunk," said San Antonio Spurs guard Dale Ellis, who won the Long Distance Shootout in 1989 and is the all-time leader in three-point conversions. "It used to be just an afterthought for most teams."

When a team like Houston dumps the ball inside to Hakeem Olajuwon and he's double-teamed, there's a good chance the ball will end up in the hands of Smith, Maxwell or Mario Elie behind the circle.

"You either risk single coverage on the inside guy and try to cover the perimeter guys or you double the inside guy and risk the three-point shot," Ramsay said.

Sundvold said former Heat coach Ron Rothstein was his first coach to add the shot to the regular game plan. The Heat ran plays to free Sundvold for threes off opponent free throws, fast breaks and sideline out-of-bounds situations.

"People guard the three-point line now," Thomas said. "Whereas, when I first came into the league, everybody said, 'What a terrible shot.' Now, it's a momentum breaker, a momentum stopper."

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