The Joe Harris fairytale has reached its pumpkin stage.
His story in the NBA has been one of linear overachievement. Picked up from the scrap heap after the Orlando Magic cut him from their roster while Harris was under anesthesia, Harris solidified his game as a member of the Nets in year one of the Kenny Atkinson administration. The very next season, 2017-2018, he broke 40 percent from deep — a statistical parameter that foretold his destined NBA greatness.
2018-2019 was the birth of the Joe Harris we know so well, a 47.4 percent league-leading marksman with the shooting accuracy that could snipe the hairs off a forearm. Unfortunately, that breakout campaign was tainted by a brutal performance against the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, in which Joe’s three-point percentage fell all the way to 19 percent in five disappointing games.
In 2019-2020, Harris took a gap year from leading the league in 3-point percentage, instead choosing to exorcise his playoff demons in the NBA bubble while averaging 16.5 points on 52.2 percent from the field and 58.3 percent from deep in four games against the Toronto Raptors.
That terrific performance as a member of Brooklyn’s ragtag bubble team earned Joe a big-time payday of 4 years, $72 million.
This season was a return to the Joe we love and know, a league-leader in three-point performance yet again at a career-high 47.5 percent — including a preposterous 50 percent on wide-open threes, which represented the highest share of his 3-point shot diet.
How dominant has the Virginia product been in the last three years? He’s taken 1,236 three’s and made 46 percent of them, tops in the league over that stretch, better than any member of the Curry family or other marksman named J.J. and Kyle!
And yet, in Joe’s last three showings against the Milwaukee Bucks, the playoff ghosts from Harris’ past have come back to haunt him. The clock has struck midnight and the magic of his fantastic 2020-2021 campaign has begun to fade.
Let’s put some numbers behind that claim; since Game 3 of this second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Joe has shot just 20 percent from deep on 6.7 attempts per game along with 20 percent from two-point range. To go a level deeper, here’s Joe’s shot chart organized by the distance of his closest defender.
Joe Harris 3P% Since Game 3
|DISTANCE OF DEFENDER||ATTEMPTS||MAKES||PERCENTAGE|
|DISTANCE OF DEFENDER||ATTEMPTS||MAKES||PERCENTAGE|
|2-4 Feet; Tight||1||5||20%|
|4-6 Feet; Open||2||7||28.60%|
|6+ Feet; Very Open||1||8||12.50%|
“Yeah, I would say he’s due. It’s interesting, maybe I should talk to him. I have all the confidence in the world in Joe. Every time he shoots the ball, I think it’s going in and that hasn’t changed these last three games and it won’t change tomorrow night,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash before Game 6. “We all go through stages when the ball doesn’t go through the basket. It happens. But that doesn’t diminish my respect and confidence in Joe at all.”
This isn’t the first time that Nash has backed his trusted movement shooter. Tracking back to Harris’ rough 1-for-11 Game 3 showing, Brooklyn’s head coach made it clear that Joe wasn’t the least of his problems. After all, shooting variance — that lovable beast – says Harris is eventually due for a change.
“I think it’s important to stick with it. Joe’s a smart guy and an elite, elite shooter. It happens,” Nash said. “No one’s going to shoot to their norm or even their average every night, so it’s important to just stick with it. I’m not worried about Joe Harris at all. He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s an incredible shooter, and if he gets the same looks my money is on him.”
Granted, some of Joe’s looks have been well-contested by the swarming Bucks’ defense. As seen below, there are moments where Joe is shooting though a sea of six Midwest arms.
Whereas in others, Harris’ shooting rhythm was interrupted by some well-timed help defense (like this Jrue Holiday “stunt”) to pressure his release.
Holistically, however, shots like the clips above don’t represent an overwhelming share of his 3-point makeup. In fact, he’s actually shooting fewer tightly contested 3-pointers in his last three playoff games (33.3 percent) than he did in the regular season (35.7 percent), at least according to shot frequency. Statistically speaking, these are the most open shots he’s gotten all year. That is... surprising given all of Brooklyn’s injuries to its stars.
“A lot of the looks that I had were some of the best that I had all series, in terms of being uncontested clean looks where I’m able to get space,” said Harris after Game 3. “So yeah, it was definitely one of those things where we’re certainly frustrated. Difficult night.”
Even on Tuesday, Harris was left alone in the corner early in the first quarter with his Nets down 12-2 and in need of a bucket, and yet Joe to come short.
And in Game 3, he was given two chances at glory after a missed catch-and-shoot bounced straight into his hands in fortuitous fashion, only for his second 3-point bomb to miss yet again.
Before Game 5, Harris wasn’t pressed about the scope of his role, noting that his impact isn’t necessarily measured by points on the board; but more by creation for others through the threat of his gravity.
“My job is to be aggressive, hunting shots, facilitate offense with pace, allow guys to get room and rhythm looks themselves just by the movement, screening, whatever it might be on my end,” said Harris, “It’s not necessarily about me scoring X amount of points. It’s about me just trying to initiate offense and helping put the ball in the hole regardless of who it is.”
While that may true, at some point, Brooklyn is going to need Harris to start hitting some outside shots to keep the defense honest. Long regarded as a pivotal piece in this championship run, 20 percent from deep just isn’t going to cut it. The Nets bet big on Joe’s continued development, his continued success to accentuate a historic offense.
Functionally, Joe’s job is to make wide-open shots; at just 12 percent in his last three games, it’s time for Harris to turn functionality into fruition. Joe must reverse the clocks and transform this playoff pumpkin into a carriage once more.