Like the boogeyman, the threat of the three-point shot is mostly a product of overactive imaginations.

Ask yourself which is more frightening: the sight of Shaquille O'Neal catching the ball in the low post or the sight of any opponent spotting up from the three-point line?If you're a typical Jazz fan, you answered a resounding B. You have this idea that the Jazz are completely incapable of defending the three, that coach Jerry Sloan is so dead-set on protecting the paint that he'll let any opponent shoot the bomb, that when the Jazz lose, it's because they've been toasted from the arc.

Most of which is false. The one true statement is that Utah's coaching approach is to defend the hoop first, then work outward. They have this idea that, in the long run, they'll win more games by denying dunks than by forbidding the three.

"The defensive philosophy of the Jazz is to take away inside play," said Jazz assistant coach Gordon Chiesa. "There aren't many teams with low-post scoring threats, but on the ones that do, if you don't help out, they're going to go wild inside. The question is, will three or four or five three-pointers make a greater difference than scoring at will from inside? We don't think so."

The evidence, including an average of 60 wins a season for the past four seasons, indicates the Jazz's philosophy is sound. The simple fact is - and this will surprise some people - the three-point shot is rarely a significant factor in determining wins or losses.

Yes, opponents did fare better against the Jazz on threes this season than against the league as a whole. Utah foes hit at a 37.2 percent clip from the arc, compared with a leaguewide percentage of 34.6.

But the coaches expected that, as a result of the three-point line being moved back out to a 23-foot, 9-inch distance after a three-season trial at 22 feet. With the line farther out, it made it tougher for defenders double-teaming inside to get back outside to defend three-point shooters.

Besides, the numbers show the Jazz fared better when opponents made threes. In the Jazz's 62 wins, foes shot 40.7 percent from the 3-point line. In their 20 losses, opponents shot 27.9 percent.

It will be interesting to watch whether that pattern continues through this postseason, but if last year is any indication, the Jazz should expect no sudden volley of threes.

In all NBA playoff games last year, teams attempted an average of 19.2 threes per game, making 34.7 percent. The Jazz, meanwhile, saw an average of 19.3 threes launched against them, 34.3 percent of which hit home. At worst, the Jazz were an average playoff team in terms of three-point shots allowed and made.

Some stubborn fans will no doubt assert that the Jazz's playoff losses are a better indication of their three-point susceptibility, but that hasn't been the case either. In seven postseason losses last year, Utah gave up an average of 16.7 3-point attempts, 35 percent of which were made. In their wins, they faced 15.8 attempts, 33.2 percent good. Yes, the numbers are slightly higher in losses, but not enough to provide overwhelming evidence that the defensive philosophy is in need of a change. The higher numbers in playoff losses are more likely a reflection of overall defensive malaise in those games than of three-point disregard.

Individual games also offer evidence that the effect of the three-point shot on the outcome of games is over-rated. In the Jazz's worst playoff defeat last season, a 20-point drubbing at the hands of the Lakers, Los Angeles went 0-for-12 from the three-point line. In the game immediately before that, a Jazz victory over L.A. in Salt Lake, the Lakers made 11 of 18 3-point shots.

In the one playoff series the Jazz lost last year, against Chicago, the Bulls were strictly average from the 3-point line: 18.7 attempts per game, 34.8 percent good.

"Chicago shoots threes, but they don't live and die by it," Jazz announcer Ron Boone pointed out. "When it's all said and done, who ends up in the Finals? The halfcourt teams."

That may be true, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the three-point shot gets neglected in the postseason. The playoffs may be about halfcourt offense, about pounding the ball inside and taking high-percentage shots, but teams still take threes.

Last season ('96-97), Jazz foes attempted an average of 18 threes a game and made 35.2 percent of those. In Utah's 20 playoff games last year, opponents tried 19.3 threes a game, making 34.3 percent. The difference in numbers is so slight as to be insignificant. The conclusion is that opponents attacked the Jazz pretty much the same as they did all season.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

The 3-point shot

The 3-point shot is seldom a determining factor in a game. The Jazz concentrate on taking away inside play rather than defending against the 3-point shot.

3-point shot percentage

League (NBA) 34.6%

Jazz opponents 37.2%