Damian Lillard’s Game 5 buzzer-beater to vanquish the Oklahoma City Thunder will go down in history as one of the greatest shots ever made in the NBA playoffs. Praise for Lillard’s effort was instantaneous and near-universal. Everyone who saw the ball go through the net as time expired became a fan, save Thunder defender Paul George, who claimed in a post-game press conference that the 37-foot attempt was a “bad shot”.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; Lillard’s attempt was certainly deeper than normal. By traditional standards, the shot was low-percentage. But Lillard’s success, along with that of Stephen Curry and a couple other deep shooters across the league, exposes the need for new definitions. Your grandpa’s bad shot isn’t so terrible anymore in the modern NBA.
The Old Rules
Tradition and physics dictate that shots closer to the rim will succeed more often than those farther away. The angle for success narrows as distance from the hoop increases. Nothing in the universe will alter that reality. The dunk is the highest-percentage shot in basketball, followed by layups, then on out past the key, the foul line, and onwards. Lillard’s logo shots require such precision that few NBA players dare attempt them except under the most dire of circumstances. Thus close-in shots are deemed “good” while those farther away are less so.
The three-point arc mitigates this assessment somewhat. Rewarding long makes with 1.5 times the value of close ones increased their viability. In situations like Lillard’s last night—tie ballgame, no time left on the clock—a single point yields the same result as three. In these cases, the old rule would seem to apply: closer is better.
Even were the clock and score not factors, leaving twelve feet of space between the arc and the point of release adds enough difficulty to make the whole idea is functionally insane by traditional standards. In that light, George’s assessment was justified. Lillard lofted a “bad” shot, redeemed only by the fact that it went in.
Except the traditional standards no longer apply with the same force. As Lillard and his peers are showing, the definition of “good” itself has changed.
The New Standard
The defining characteristic of Lillard’s historic shot was not distance from the hoop, but proximity to his defender. This is the part of the possession he engineered brilliantly.
Here’s the video of the play:
.@dame_lillard’s game winner as heard on the radio by @blazerwheels #ripcity pic.twitter.com/NlZdjBrZKC— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) April 24, 2019
When Lillard released his game-winning attempt, Paul George was nowhere near his hands. Nor was George’s hand in Lillard’s face. Instead George remained slightly more than a lunge away, unable to interfere with or intimidate the attempt. He was a non-factor.
Lillard and his teammates put George in that compromising position. The Blazers spread the floor on the possession, leaving Lillard the maximum amount of space in which to operate.
Vertical space—the distance between the baseline and Lillard’s position near halfcourt—was the key. George knew full well that any shot could win the game. Portland did not need a three. He had to worry about Lillard lofting a shot from any depth. If George played up close, Lillard might have blown by him. If he retreated too far, Lillard would have an unopposed attempt. George tried to take the middle ground, staying close enough to interfere with a jumper, far enough back to compensate for a drive.
Lillard played George’s approach perfectly. He did not close the space between him and the defender. He let George sidle up as the clock wound down. A smart defender, George knew that time would limit Lillard’s options. After George advanced, but while he was still far enough off that the space between them was tangible, Lillard gave the slightest hitch with his hands, as if his move was starting now. This forced George into action, coercing him into making the critical decision about where to defend.
At this moment, Lillard’s brilliance showed forth in three ways:
- At no time did Lillard close the space between himself and George. He would have needed to do so in order to earn the traditional, “high percentage” inside shot. Instead, Lillard used the distance between him and the defender as an ally, making George negotiate his way through it based on guesswork rather than committing to a certainty that George could react to.
- Lillard anticipated, correctly, that George would default to the traditional way of thinking...assuming that shots closer to the hoop are automatically better. When George committed in the critical nanosecond, it was to prevent further advancement towards the rim rather than to close the gap between himself and Lillard.
- To complete the shot, Lillard moved sideways away from the defender even though the motion carried him away from the hoop as well. He was agnostic with regards to distance from the rim as long as the shot was clear.
For a shooter of Lillard’s caliber, this move not only makes perfect sense, it illustrates a new definition of “good”. Covered versus not covered is more important that closer or farther away from the hoop.
Had Lillard gone the traditional route and driven on George, he might have earned a layup or easier shot. He also could have gotten stripped, been bodied until the clock ran out without a shot attempt, gotten bumped with no whistle, or been forced into a well-covered shot attempt. In all cases, George’s considerable prowess as a defender would have come into play. The outcome would have involved two people. With the route Lillard actually took, it depended on just one. Instead of taking on an All-NBA-caliber defender, Lillard reduced George to bare physical characteristics: a slightly bigger, slightly slower forward, unable to reach far enough, quickly enough to change the shot. The only question was whether Lillard could make it unopposed in the time allowed. He answered that one decisively.
As it turns out, Lillard did end up taking advantage of the laws of physics, just the ones governing the defender rather than the ones surrounding the rim. This wasn’t just a matchup between two players, it was a clash of old versus new definitions. New understood the way old would frame the contest, then insisted it be fought on different terms...giving old everything it wanted, only making it not matter.
As the league continues to encourage proficient outside shooters—as young players practice deeper shots and referees whistle touch fouls on jump shots while still making judgment calls about close contact under the rim—we’re going to see the battle between old and new continue. We’ll also see the definition of “good shot” evolve. Proximity to defender will probably gain prominence over proximity to the hoop.
Though Paul George’s assessment was correct by traditional standards, this is a new NBA. By the new definition of “good”, Lillard got a far better shot from 37 feet than he would have found toeing the arc, in the lane, or at the cup. His shot wasn’t only good enough to win, it was good, period.