NEW YORK - James Harden turned to it to become the NBA’s most unstoppable scorer.
Luka Doncic has ridden it to stardom on both sides of the Atlantic.
The step-back 3-pointer is the perfect weapon for the modern NBA, practically a necessity in a game where the ability to find space to shoot from behind the arc is more valued than ever before.
“Things have changed and the game is so spread out,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “All over the NBA and all over the world really, everybody’s stretching the range out a few feet more. The 3-point line is being covered much better than it has in the past so guys are moving back, and guys that can create space to shoot 3s unassisted have a special skill . It’s going to be a necessary skill more as the game continues to evolve.”
But before guys who belong in the paint start hoisting them up from the perimeter, or taking balls off the rack and shooting step-backs during this weekend’s All-Star 3-point contest, there a few things to consider.
Even Stephen Curry said it’s a tough shot to make. It’s fundamentally flawed and sometimes looks like a violation.
“You mean when they jump backwards and travel and shoot a 3?” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich quipped. “I guess it has been made legal. I don’t know. It’s very difficult to guard.”
That’s because the defender has to be prepared that the player with the ball is going to drive to the basket. But instead of continuing forward, the offensive player suddenly gathers his feet and steps backward to shoot, taking advantage of the extra space he has created.
Curry is one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in history, but he’s also a wizard with his dribble. So whoever is defending him can never quite be sure which way he is going.
“Obviously you respect the athletic guys that can drive and use their first step and explosiveness and all that type of stuff,” Curry said. “It’s a tough shot to make consistently, but the guys that do, it’s obviously a shot and a look that you can always kind of count on to create space and knock it down.”
There will be more than a few hoisted up during the All-Star festivities.
But nobody shoots it more — or arguably better — than Harden, whose 151 step-back 3-pointers coming into this week represented 15 percent of the 1,006 makes thus far, according to the NBA’s statistics. He dribbles patiently until he sees an opening, then either drives for a layup or foul, or steps back for the 3, sometimes from a few steps beyond the arc.
Harden, a seven-time All-Star, and the league MVP and scoring champion last season, has scored 30 or more points in 30 straight games, third-longest streak ever. Averaging 36.5 points, he is poised to win another scoring title in a runaway. He said he turned to the step-back 3 as a way to evolve with a game that has seen more than 2,500 step-back 3s taken already this season, after there were only 584 for all of 2014-15, according to NBAsavant.com .
“I mean, every single year you have to come back better than you were the year before, and for me I had a pretty good year last year. But you’ve got to come back better and come up with a new move or a new package to keep defenders on their heels,” Harden said. “So whether it’s a step-back or a slide step, just to create separation to be able to get my shot off.”
Harden has the green light in Houston, though that doesn’t make it a good shot — at least not for everyone else.
There are times when Harden launches one where it looks like a horrible shot.
He willingly takes longer attempts without fully squaring his shoulders up to the rim, which goes against just about everything coaches taught years ago, and critics watching him shuffle his feet have seen instances where he certainly appeared to get away with traveling .
Because of the degree of difficulty, the step-back 3 may only be for a handful of players.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni compares it to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook, a shot that everyone might try, but few could master.
“Certain guys have certain talents but it’s a hard shot,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t know what the stats are, but it’s a low 20 percent kind of shot for most people and he’s at about 40.”
Actually, Harden’s 41.5 percent on step-back 3s was only a little higher than the league average of 39.5 percent, though that could be misleading because so few players attempt them — and the ones who do are often already good shooters.
D’Antoni figures someone will come along and shoot it well, and that player may have already arrived. Doncic is far ahead of anyone but Harden in attempts and makes, and the Mavericks rookie’s goodbye highlight in Europe was a one-legged, step-back 3 that helped Real Madrid put away Game 4 of the ACB Championship series.
Doncic smiled when asked about the step-back 3, saying: “A lot of guys have special moves. That’s my kind of move.”
And even Popovich, no big fan of the 3-point happy game the NBA has become, gives credit to the step-back shooters.
“They are great at it, that’s for sure,” he said. “Take nothing away from them. It’s been developed, it’s used and no one is better at it than they are. It’s virtually impossible to guard, but they perfected it.”