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Deeper Dive: This Year's Playoffs Are Proving Mid-Range Basketball is Far From Extinct

by Photo of Tommy Dee

The second round of the NBA Playoffs is littered with Old School vs. New School offensive tendencies. What’s clear is that the key to playoff victories still sits in the mid-range area.

Deeper Dive: This Year's Playoffs Are Proving Mid-Range Basketball is Far From Extinct

There is an underlying theme in the NBA that if you don't believe in the "new school" NBA, aka spread offense predicated on dribble drive from the perimeter triggered by pick and roll, then you're living in the dark ages of the NBA. Forget the fact that nearly every NBA Championship that has been won of over the past 25 years has had an element of post play combined with mid-range prowess, if you don't have an attacking point guard and shooters surrounding the perimeter ready to catch and shoot three-point bombs your franchise is obsolete. In fact, in today's new school-style offense, the mid-range game is allegedly going to become extinct (hoopshabit.com,Young,3/2015). In the same manner that Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, and Kevin Garnett disagreed when leading their teams in the playoffs and ultimately to NBA championships, several teams, including Gasol's Chicago Bulls, are proving the most valuable real estate in the NBA Playoffs is 8-to-15 feet from the basket during this year's playoffs against their spread-the-floor counterparts.  

Let's start with Blake Griffin and the Clippers. Granted, the Clippers did well in implementing a superior perimeter game this season allowing them to lead the NBA in offensive rating (basketball-reference.com). They also have the luxury of one of the best penetrating point guards the league has seen in quite some time in Chris Paul. But Doc Rivers rarely puts four guys on the perimeter and allows for Paul to create like the "new school" offenses. Rivers understands just how valuable that mid-range real estate is dating back to the championship success he enjoyed with Garnett, easily one of the best 15-to-18 foot jump shooters of the past two decades (Bloomberg Sports, Lowenstein, 7/24/13). 

Like those great Celtics teams, the Clippers are at their best when Blake Griffin is at the four and DeAndre Jordan is protecting the paint and gobbling up every rebound in sight at the five spot. The most obvious example of the spread offense, ironically, lives in Houston behind quarterback and free throw aficionado James Harden, which adds another layer of intrigue as the series heads to Los Angeles tied 1-1 (businessinsider, Gaines, 1/13/15). 

"With the advancement of statistics in the NBA, one of the most important revelations has been the confirmation that the best shots in basketball are either at the rim or from 3-point range. These are the shots that provide the highest return on your investment. Meanwhile, the worst shots in basketball are the so-called "long 2s" or shots just inside the 3-point line. The Rockets have been the biggest proponents of this line of thinking, as they regularly take the fewest number of mid-range two-point shots in the NBA. This year they have taken it to a new extreme."

How did the Clippers dominate Game 1 in an unexpected win without CP3 you ask? Griffin's mid-range dominance. The key to the Clippers split of the first two games of the series begins and ends with Griffin who is emerging as maybe the best mid-range big man in the NBA with Duncan reaching the end of an all-time career. Truth be told I can't think of a worse fit in a spread offense than Griffin who can't shoot the three from the power or small forward position and is too small to play the five. Considering he's just entering the prime of his career you can expect the Clippers to continue to play to his strength inside the arc. His productivity from there during the regular season, combined with their ability from the perimeter all orchestrated by Paul though pick and roll, made the Clippers offense lethal from every position on the court. 

That raises an interesting point in my mind. How can people preach "spread" offense predicated on "space" but claim that teams that take shots from mid-range are being inefficient? That seems like an incredible contradiction. If your philosophy is to combine layups and three pointers under the assertion of "space" why eliminate the middle of the half court? Moreover, the playoffs are half court battles. Why reduce the battlefield? Any NBA coach will tell you the best shot a player gets is one where they are in rhythm AND space. They will also tell you finding space in the half court offense, especially in playoff games, is what separates winning and losing a playoff series.  

This is why pick and pop and pinch post offensive sets are constants to traditional winning basketball. The easy example to validate spread offense is the 2014 San Antonio Spurs. Their offensive flow was triggered beautifully by Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili pick and roll leading to drives and kicks to the perimeter when the defense helped, but they also got many a big bucket from Duncan in mid-range during last season's championship run (Otherleague.com). In this series, Griffin is locked in at mid-range/pick and roll four offensively even serving as the point forward in the absence of the injured Paul.

What Griffin is doing, not only in this series but in the playoffs as a whole, is showing how he can dominate several facets of the game including mid-range, post up and even transition. What's critical to note here is that when I say "mid-range game" I don't just mean jump shooting; an entire game consists of setting screens and passing from those positions as well, which Griffin has been exceptional at. Griffin, particularly in Game 1 against the Rockets was off the charts special in collecting a triple-double and a surprising opening game victory that punched the Rockets square in the jaw. 

Here early in Game 2, Griffin went to work in the pinch post focusing mostly on scoring en route to 26 first half points. The Rockets, thanks to Trevor Ariza denying post entries, clamped down touches for Griffin in the second half and overcame an early deficit to even the series 1-1. But if the Rockets want to advance, especially when Paul gets back into the line up, they are going to have to step up their mid-range defense. This is a common theme around the entire NBA playoffs.

My man Jason Patt of SB Nation explained the Bulls' dominance from mid-range in Game 1 of their series with the Cleveland Cavaliers centering around the quickly developing chemistry between Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose. The duo's prowess from 12-18 feet sparked a 19-8 third quarter run, which saw them combine for 18 points in putting the Bulls ahead double digits and the game out of reach. It was a strategy that exposed the Cavs' philosophy defensively.                           

"Leaving Gasol open at the elbows or the top of the key is basically a death knell. Furthermore, Gasol shot better than 49 percent on catch-and-shoot two-pointers in the regular season and 52 percent on wide open (closest defender is more than 6 feet away) shots over 10 feet in the regular season, per SportVU. Those marks are at a whopping 64 percent and 77 percent in the postseason, respectively.

The Cavaliers will surely make adjustments on these pick-and-rolls (head coach David Blatt claims they did already), but that may just open up other opportunities for the Bulls' offense. That could mean easier drives to the basket for Rose or more open looks on the opposite side for players like Butler and Dunleavy."

For all intents and purposes Gasol's mid-range ability was why he was such a sought-after free agent. The Knicks hoped his connection to mid-range master Phil Jackson would lure him to Gotham City, but the Bulls had more money and are reaping the benefits of postseason Pau. He has given them the perfect match to a healthier Rose and in combination with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson has given the Cavs all they can handle as the series shifts back to Chicago for Games 3 and 4. He is the x-factor in my opinion because his shooting ability negates the rim protection of Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, which allows for Rose to exploit his strength: attacking the rim off the dribble.    

Another series tied at 1-1 after the road team stole a victory against a higher seed that also features a Gasol is Memphis-Golden State. We've talked about the potential perils of relying on the perimeter as it relates to the Warriors weeks back, and defensively Memphis took Golden State out of their rhythm holding them to 23% from three and 42% from the field in Game 2. The dynamic duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were taken out of rhythm and were a combined 3-17 from deep. But what was more impressive to me about the Grizzlies game plan was how well they attacked mid-range offensively. Mike Conley led the charge and was able to navigate through the mid-range with his scoring and passing out of potential traps. 


 The shot chart tells the true story of efficiency from Game 2 triggered by the return of Mike Conley. 


Having had one Gasol slip thought his fingers, you can tell why Knicks fans are salivating over even the slightest prospects of the multi-faceted Marc potentially signing in New York. Like his brother, Marc's complete mid-range game is a lynchpin to what the Grizzlies must do to hang with the Warriors' small line up and his big third quarter playing off the penetration of Conley gave Memphis a lead that they'd never relinquish. Gasol was able to shake free from Draymond Green and utilized his size to shoot over him around the foul line. I find it hard to agree with anyone who will tell me a straight on foul line jumper is a "worse" shot than a three pointer off penetration as Gasol's precision had the Warriors scrambling immediately following the halftime break. If the Warriors want to advance, they are going to have to adjust to Gasol's mastery in the middle of their half court possessions.

It's a fascinating storyline that exists in these three series and it's one where the younger generation of fans is pitted against those of us who have been studying the game for decades. Like most arguments there's accuracy on both sides, but there's no way the mid-range is becoming obsolete. Spread offense generates points and combines dribble-drive guards, who have flooded the league for nearly a decade, and calculator-heavy statisticians who are analyzing the game from a different viewpoint. But the reality is the mid-range game is as important as it's ever been and mastering it come playoff time can give you a distinct advantage offensively. The key to winning playoff basketball lies in the half court game. Taking better care of the basketball and taking better shots keep teams out of transition and forces an offense to have to find a shot verses both a 5-man set defense and the shot clock. This actually gives an advantage to the defense. If you are eliminating space within the half court one could argue you're giving the defense less space to have to cover. 

Keep an eye on the mid-range areas in this series as the aforementioned players in the games later. They hold the deeds to the real estate that will result in their teams continuing on in their quests to win an NBA Championship. And as long as Blake Griffin and the Gasol brothers are in the NBA and playing meaningful playoff games, there is absolutely zero reason to believe that the mid-range game will disappear any time soon.

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