OKC Thunder's Billy Donovan has been on winning and losing ends of 3-point revolution from Providence Friars to Houston Rockets
Rick Pitino gathered his players during a preseason practice, and on a blackboard he scribbled an equation that Providence would follow to the Final Four.
It was October of 1986, and college basketball was introducing a new variable: the 3-point shot.
The numbers were fairly straightforward. Pitino explained that shooting 33% from 3-point range would yield the same amount of points as shooting 50% on 2-pointers. Pitino wanted the Friars to take 25 3-pointers per game.
Ryan Ford, then a walk-on sophomore, will never forget that message.
“He convinced us it was the best way for us to play,” Ford said.
Billy Donovan was also listening, and no player better executed Pitino’s plan. Donovan was dynamite from 3-point range that season as Providence led a college hoops revolution from behind the arc.
Three decades later, Donovan and the Thunder were on the losing end of a more radical revolution.
After holding off the Thunder in seven games, the center-less Rockets are three wins away from the Western Conference Finals. Houston’s long-range shots weren’t solely responsible for sending the Thunder home in the first round, but style of play was the starkest difference between the Thunder and Rockets.
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The Rockets attempted 101 more 3-pointers than the Thunder over the seven games. Houston shot 35.9% on 357 attempts, and Oklahoma City shot 32.8% on 256 attempts.
Though coached by a former sharpshooter in Donovan, the Thunder ranked 27th in the NBA in 3-point attempts this season while leading the league in mid-range shooting percentage — a shot the Rockets, outside of Russell Westbrook, detest.
The Rockets have made 142 3-pointers this postseason, the highest eight-game total in NBA playoff history. Houston has taken 55.3% of its shots from 3-point range.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni is using the same math Pitino used at Providence, but the Rockets are pushing the boundaries even further.
“It's not just from the mid-80s to now. Our game is evolving every day,” said Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek, who was an assistant under Pitino at Providence. “The way the game is played today is different than yesterday.”
The Rockets have attempted 49.5 3-pointers per game in the playoffs, and some thought it was outlandish for Providence to attempt 19.6 3-pointers per game in 1986-87.
That mark, though below Pitino’s goal that Sendek shared, still led the Big East by a wide margin. Providence attempted 665 3-pointers. Only one other Big East team (Georgetown) attempted even half that.
“Back then, there was such a strong national push that the 3-point line was gonna ruin the game,” Donovan said. “And I think that a lot of teams just refused to even take the shot.”
Pitino embraced it. Providence hired the young coach in 1985 after Pitino spent two seasons as an assistant with the NBA's New York Knicks. That NBA experience prepared Pitino for how to use the 3-point line to his advantage.
“No one else was ready,” Ford said. “He used to say people don't know how to defend the three yet, and he was right.”
Before Pitino arrived at Providence, the Friars had never finished better than seventh in the Big East. But behind Pitino’s strategy and Donovan’s stroke, Providence went 25-9 in 1986-87 and finished fourth in the Big East.
In what’s become a legendary story, Pitino, upon taking the job, tried to convince three or four of Providence’s returning players to transfer.
Donovan was one of them.
As Pitino said in a 2018 ESPN film, Donovan was out of shape and was not a Big East-caliber player. Donovan wanted to transfer to either Fairfield or Northeastern, so Pitino called both schools.
Neither wanted Donovan.
“Billy comes back the next day,” Pitino said in the ESPN film, “and says, ‘Which coach wanted me more?’ I said, forget that, they’re both very interested.”
Donovan stayed, and after a productive junior campaign, Donovan’s senior season was well timed for the introduction of the 3-point line.
A player who was rejected by Fairfield and Northeastern became “Billy the Kid: The Fastest Gun in the Big East.” Donovan, who grew up on Long Island, wore a cowboy hat, chaps and boots for a picture in Providence’s media guide.
“He almost single-handedly takes us to the 1987 Final Four,” said Sendek, who coached Rockets star James Harden at Arizona State. “Billy was nothing short of sensational his senior season.”
Donovan shot 40.9% from 3-point range as a senior on 237 attempts — the fourth-most in the nation. Third on that list with 257 attempts was a UC-Irvine guard named Scott Brooks.
In 1986-87, Providence had three of the Big East’s top-seven players in 3-point attempts: Donovan (237), Ernie “Pop” Lewis (220) and Delray Brooks (157). All three shot better than 40% from deep.
Providence earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Friars beat UAB in the first round and escaped Austin Peay in overtime in the second round.
Providence routed No. 2 seed Alabama in the Sweet 16. Donovan scored 26 points and the Friars shot 14-of-20 from 3-point range. After upsetting No. 1 seed Georgetown in the Elite Eight, Providence fell to Syracuse in the Final Four.
It was a Cinderella season made possible by the 3-point shot.
“I think that's more than fair,” Sendek said. “I think it would've been, if not impossible, certainly much more difficult to make that kind of run.”
Pitino left the next season to coach the Knicks, and Donovan played 44 games in New York under his college coach. Donovan joined Pitino’s staff at Kentucky in 1989, and Donovan of course went on to win two national championships of his own at Florida.
“There's probably very few stories where two people believed in each other enough and invested in a relationship where their careers and lives were altered by each other's impact,” said Ford, who was the best man in Donovan’s wedding. “What Pitino accomplished at Providence is what led him to become the next coach of the New York Knicks. He's an amazing coach that did amazing things for the team, but if it wasn't for Billy, none of it would've happened.
“And Billy can say the same. If Pitino didn't come in and teach him what he did, and developed a belief and confidence in him as a player, he wouldn't have accomplished that.”
Pitino and Donovan were the perfect pairing at the perfect time, when teams were first figuring out that enough 3s beat enough 2s.
It’s the same math that sent the Thunder home 33 years later.