The midrange is important and the 2021 NBA playoffs are proof

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 26: Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns shoots the ball during the game against the LA Clippers during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on June 26, 2021 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

The rise of analytics has changed the game of basketball forever. Thanks to lots of careful math, front offices and coaches have realized that threes are more valuable than twos. As a result, three-point attempts are on the rise, primarily at the expense of midrange shots. Teams now aim primarily to find shooters behind the arc or get high percentage shots at the rim. Over the course of an eighty-two game season, this works. However, playoff defenses try to take away these mathematically optimal shots. What’s left? The midrange, of course. And these playoffs are proving why the midrange is still an essential shot for championship contenders.

The midrange might not be the highest percentage look. However, late in games, teams can’t necessarily choose what shot they get. When a team needs to get a bucket in clutch moments, especially in the playoffs, they often have no choice but to turn to the midrange. All four teams that advanced to the conference finals featured midrange assassins. And these midrange specialists each provided their team with late-game heroics in the Playoffs. Without them, they wouldn’t have advanced as far as they did. Interestingly, all four of these teams’ go-to midrange guys get their shots in different ways.

The Point God’s playoff midrange clinic

Jun 30, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) shoots a three point basket against Los Angeles Clippers guard Terance Mann (14) during the second half in game six of the Western Conference Finals for the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Paul was the best mid-range shooter in the game this year, and he has leveled up in the playoffs. His mastery of the pick-and-roll gives defenses an impossible choice. Teams can double him, leaving Deandre Ayton with a wide-open dunk. They can try to get around the screen, likely leaving Paul a lane to the hoop. They can help off of one of the Suns’ three-point specialists, allowing one of the best assist guys of his generation to get other players going. Or they can switch, leaving Paul with a big man on him. Teams have tried all of these but to no avail. There is no right answer to the modern pick-and-roll, especially with Paul at the reins.

CP3, however, doesn’t go for the most popular options. In fact, he spurns them. Rather than going around a screen for a three or a drive to the hoop, he snakes into the midrange. He can do those, mind you. But his preferred option involved getting into the midrange. Few players are better at forcing a big man to switch. Even when the Nuggets tried to drop Nikola Jokic into the paint, CP3 managed to pull him away from the hoop into a switch. From there, it’s no contest. Paul can execute a crossover or sidestep into his fallaway midrange jumper as well as anyone. He made 52.3% of his non-paint field goals, tops among the 20 players with the most attempts. And he has been even better in the postseason.

Most importantly, he can get to his spots and knock down shots in key moments. He took the Clippers apart in the deciding Game 6, going for 41 points on only 24 shots. The Nuggets had no answers for their entire (albeit brief) series. The Suns aren’t in their first Finals since 1993 without Paul’s midrange. As good as Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton have been (and they’ve been great), Paul is often Phoenix’s closer, and he gets it done from around the free-throw line.

Ice Trae’s cold, cold floater

Jun 23, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) shoots during the fourth quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks during game one of the Eastern Conference Finals for the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawks weren’t supposed to be this good. They exceeded preseason expectations by making the playoffs. 15 of the 18 analysts on ESPN’s playoff prediction panel picked the Knicks over them in the first round. And when they won that, even fewer people believed they could knock off the first-seeded Sixers. But they’ve surpassed every expectation. A large part of this is thanks to Atlanta’s underappreciated supporting cast. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter are great complements to Trae young. They can be shooters or secondary shot creators. And John Collins and Clint Capela are a dynamic frontcourt combo.

The Hawks’ primary pick-and-roll attack is much different than Phoenix’s. They run defenders through a double screen by Collins and Capela. Collins pops out to the three, and Capela rolls hard to the hoop. Young doesn’t snake around these screens methodically. He gets downhill fast and has the same floor spacing and rim-running options as Paul. However, he doesn’t pull up for a traditional jump shot in the midrange. Instead, he takes floaters. He established himself as a killer from that spot all year. He didn’t take long to show this was an effective playoff shot. In his first playoff appearance, he shushed the Knicks crowd with a game-winning floater with 0.9 seconds left on the clock.

Young’s shooting from deep hasn’t been great these playoffs. But his ability to create for teammates and generate quality looks on his floaters have propelled the Hawks to shocking heights. His ability to get high-quality looks from his favorite spot against playoff defenses is perhaps the single most important takeaway from this playoffs (although the legitimacy of the Suns’ young core might take the cake.) Although they fell to the Bucks this year, the Hawks are poised to contend for years to come with Young at the helm.

Middleton’s role as a closer in Milwaukee

Jul 1, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) shoots during the second quarter against the Atlanta Hawks during game five of the Eastern Conference Finals for the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Make no mistake, Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the engine for the Bucks’ playoff run. He was on a historic tear before his injury. Four players have had 10+ games with 30 points and 10 rebounds in one postseason. Antetokounmpo is one. The other three are Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Hakeem Olajuwon. But Khris Middleton is still Milwaukee’s closer and an elite shotmaker. Even as the Bucks’ second star, he still ranks among the top small forwards in the game. When the game gets tight, the ball goes to Middleton. And he usually delivers, as he did in Game 1 against the Heat.

Middleton is a scorer. He can rebound and pass, but most of his value comes from his shot-making. While the analytically-oriented Bucks have pushed him to shoot more threes and layups when the game gets tight and they need to score, Middleton often pulls up from the midrange. He can go off a screen or take a defender one-on-one off the dribble. His height and length allow him to elevate over smaller defenders. When he’s hot, he is the Bucks’ best scorer. And in the half-court offense, Antetokounmpo can struggle against half-court defenses as a ball-handler. Middleton can comfortably take over in those moments.

In the games since Antetokounmpo’s injury, Middleton has balled out. In the close-out game six against Atlanta, Middleton had 32 points on 22 shots. And now, with Antetokounmpo still sidelined indefinitely going into their matchup with the Suns, the Bucks will need a whole lot more Middleton Magic to pick up the slack. Otherwise, they are in for a long series against the Suns.

Kawhi Leonard’s pre-injury dominance

Jun 6, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots against Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) during the first half in game seven of the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers’ playoff exit can be primarily attributed to Leonard’s injury. There isn’t much one can say about his value that hasn’t been saying before. When necessary, he can be the league’s best defender. As evidenced by his 2019 run with the Raptors, he is a winner, culminating in a Finals MVP. He’s clutch. And he is an elite offensive threat.

Leonard draws frequent comparisons to two of his heroes, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, the two best midrange scorers of all-time. Considering he studied film of those two intensely while with the Spurs (especially Bryant’s shooting form), this comes as no surprise. What makes Leonard special is his combination of strength, touch, and precision. He knows exactly where he wants to go (usually right around or inside the elbow). He can get there with one or two strong dribbles. And then he rises and knocks down a shot. It is practically a layup for him. And there isn’t much a defense can do to stop him. 

Anyone who watched the Clippers’ playoff run this year knows how brilliant Leonard was. But if you want numbers, he shot 57% from the field in these playoffs. His 30.4 player efficiency rating led all postseason players. Even more impressive and important, he didn’t miss in the fourth quarter in the Clippers’ wins. That isn’t hyperbole. He was 16-16 from the field in those situations. It’s not supposed to be that easy against late-game playoff defenses. But there’s no answer to Leonard. That’s what makes him a top-five player in the game right now.

But what about the other guys?

Jun 3, 2021; Portland, Oregon, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) guards Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) in the first half during game six in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

When you look at the stars who bowed out earlier in the playoffs, you will notice the lack of midrange killers. Damian Lillard was a flamethrower from three and put on an absolute clinic. His Game 5 outburst for 55 points was legendary. But when they needed a bucket late, he was stuck heaving shots 30 feet from the basket. Meanwhile, Nikola Jokic knocked down shot after shot from the midrange. The Blazers’ loss isn’t on Lillard. But the point is that it’s much harder to dominate from three-point land consistently.

The Mavericks have set record-breaking offensive efficiency ratings in the regular season with Luka Doncic. Their three-point attack couldn’t withstand a playoff defense that took away their bread and butter in the playoffs. When Luka couldn’t get to the rim or his threes against Kawhi’s defense by the end of the series, they had no answers.

The Utah Jazz were one of the best three-point shooting teams this year. They even featured a role player who put up a historic year in true shooting percentage this year (Joe Ingles) for good measure. Yet, they too fell to Leonard’s Clippers. After racing out to a 2-0 series lead, head coach Ty Lue (who deserves all his flowers for his coaching in these playoffs) made adjustments. And all of a sudden, the Jazz couldn’t buy a bucket. The point is it gets tough to run sets for threes or layups against postseason defenses. The midrange is still the king of the playoffs.

If Paul is the number one midrange specialist, Kevin Durant is number two. And he very nearly propelled his undermanned Nets to a victory against the Bucks. He was elite from all three levels, but his signature move is in the midrange. At nearly 7-feet tall, he can shoot over anyone with his silky smooth motion. He has the handles to get wherever he wants. He is just great.

Midrange shooters dominate the playoffs

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 15:  Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets celebrates against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game Five of the Second Round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center on June 15, 2021 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Beginning with the most recent, here are the last ten Finals MVPs: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant (back-to-back), LeBron, Andre Iguodala, Kawhi, LeBron, LeBron, and Dirk Nowitzki. It becomes obvious looking at this list: to win 16 games in the postseason; you need someone who can get to their spots in the midrange and knock down shots. All of these guys made their hay in the midrange. Other types of players can be big contributors on championship teams or make deep runs as the primary star. But if a team wants to end the year cradling the Larry O’Brien trophy, they need to have someone who can get it done in the real estate between the arc and paint.

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