July 6, 2021

The Mid-Range Game is More Important Than Ever in 2021 NBA Finals

The mid-range game has been slowly dying for the past two decades, but the 2021 NBA Finals are about to serve as a renaissance for one of the league’s long-lost arts.

Ever since analytics took over the league, three-point attempts have soared to record highs while mid-range shots have plummeted faster than Rachel Nichols' public opinion. 

In 2003, 35% of a team’s shot attempts came from the midrange. By 2020, that number dropped to 12% and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. In the 2019 regular season, three-pointers produced 1.81 points per possession, while two-pointers produced 0.81, so the advantage is real.

An obvious reason behind the NBA’s growing desire to jack up as many three-pointers as possible is simple math that somehow took the league decades to start exploiting: three is greater than two.

Since 2015, the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz are the only teams to lead the league in three-pointers made per season. Every top-ranked three-point team won a plethora of games. This was evidence that taking — and converting — enough three-pointers would transition to more success.

There’s no doubt that three-pointers are helping improve offenses. In fact, the league has seen some of the best offenses in NBA history recently such as the 2020 Dallas Mavericks and this year's Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers. There are so many factors behind a team’s success, but it’s not a coincidence the Nets and Clippers lapped the league in three-point field goal percentage.

And while offenses are better than ever before, the midrange game has been left in the dust. Role players who take baseline shots or LaMarcus Aldridge-esque 20-foot elbow jumpers have now been instructed to plant themselves around the arc. This strategy is smart, and it works in the regular season, but remember the playoffs are a different beast.

The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, who will face off in the NBA Finals, have leaned into dominating the paint and mid-range game this postseason, and that strategy has paid off big time. The Suns and Bucks rank third and fourth, respectively, in the percentage of their shots coming from two-point range this postseason. 

Phoenix led the league this season with over 17 mid-range points per game, while the Bucks ranked first in two-point field goal percentage. These teams have mastered the art of exploiting that area of the court, and it’s a big reason they’re battling it out for the NBA championship. 

So shouldn’t this mean more teams should shoot mid-range jumpers in the regular season? Well, not exactly. Take a look at the top five teams in terms of the percentage of their overall shots coming from inside the three-point line. 

1. San Antonio Spurs

2. Washington Wizards

3. Memphis Grizzlies

4. New Orleans Pelicans

5. Cleveland Cavaliers

That’s not quite a murderer's row of teams, but it’s important to remember that squads have to play differently to win in the season versus the playoffs. 

The Suns and Bucks understand this more than anybody, and it's a prime reason they’re still standing. They also know their limitations. Whatever Phoenix and Milwauklee’s reputations are as three-point shooting squads, that’s largely been false during this postseason, especially in crunch time.

In the final five minutes of games this postseason, the Bucks are shooting 20% from three-point range, while Phoenix is even worse at a paltry 16%. But both franchises are converting over 42% of their two-point attempts in crunch time. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s far better than making one three-pointer every five possessions.

By having their best players shoot more mid-range jump shots, both squads are winning the math game, as well as the on-court battle. Three is obviously better than two, but that’s only when teams actually make their three-pointers, and the postseason has historically been a much tougher environment to get off clean looks.

The playoffs value versatility on both ends of the floor, and spot-up artists have usually struggled to convert their usual percentage of long-range attempts when defenses prioritize blanketing shooters. 

The most common misconception is that it's a bad shot that should be avoided. That’s only partially true, but even analytics illustrate that good players should be taking mid-range shots. And there just so happens to be some mighty fine players in this Bucks-Suns series.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, if he’s able to play after suffering a knee injury in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Hawks, is perhaps the most dominant force in the paint in the league. He’s shooting 63% from inside the arc this postseason and is virtually unstoppable thanks to his strength and pterodactyl-like wingspan. 

Khris Middleton may be Milwaukee’s second-best player, but he’s by far their best closer thanks to his silky smooth jump shot and ability to fire away from anywhere, even when he’s closely guarded.

Chris Paul is a master from the midrange. CP3 has converted over 51% of his attempts this season, which would tie for third place in the last 25 years, per ESPN. Paul’s patented elbow jump shot, ability to create separation and strong handles are perfect, and his jumper mechanics are flawless.

Devin Booker looked up to Kobe Bryant, and while it’s unfair to place that big of a burden on the young star, his mid-range game is so clearly reminiscent of the Black Mamba. Booker sank 49% of his mid-range jumpers this season, ranking sixth in midrange efficiency and fifth in mid-range points per game. 

Even Deandre Ayton, who is mostly known for his dominant presence in the paint, has been excellent from the midrange. While Ayton is currently shooting a fantastic 71% in the playoffs, there’s a perception that it's only because he’s dunking. But he’s also developed a quality jumper, and has converted 57% of his shots outside the restricted area, which ranks third.

As good as these players are, other than Paul, they’ve all struggled mightily from three-point range this postseason. Booker is shooting 34%, Middleton is hitting 33%, Holiday is at 29% and Antetokounmpo is a ghastly 18%, while Ayton is one of the rare players who doesn’t even shoot threes. Taking threes is literally a losing proposition for these guys, especially when they’re all proficient inside the paint and in the midrange.

While previous seasons have featured teams that light it up from three, this year's NBA Finals are going to be a reminder that the midrange is far from dead, thanks to the unique skill sets of the stars and the circumstances that call for tougher shot creation.

After years of decline, the midrange is ready to shine again on the biggest stage.

Photo: Getty Images