Chris Bosh, 'The Worst Shot' and the Pacers

Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon

The mid-range jumper has, for good reason, earned itself a bad reputation over the last decade. What was once a crucial part of any basketball game and then considered to be a lost art is now widely accepted as the worst possible shot on the court. There are varying degrees to this – jumpers taken off the dribble are worse, contested jumpers taken off the dribble are even worse than that – but the common reasoning is simple: mid-range jumpers are the lowest percentage shots you can take that are still worth two points.

Most teams have figured this out in one form or another. Offensively, the Houston Rockets have all but abandoned the in-between territory, focusing their efforts on three-pointers and shots at the rim. And on defense, the Indiana Pacers have constructed a scheme that bubble wraps the paint, fires countermeasures at any attempt beyond the three-point line and all but lines up fresh, oven-baked apple pies to lure the opposition into the mid-range. The Pacers know where the best shot opportunities are, and they contain those zones with some of the longest, rangiest defenders in the league.

It works, too. Indiana has the best defense in the league, giving up a mere 95.6 points per 100 possessions.

This creates a bit of a conundrum for teams facing the Pacers. Do you take the shot they give you knowing that it is a lower percentage shot, or do you charge ahead into Indiana’s never-empty painted area?

In a revealing, insightful feature in the Analytics Issue of ESPN The Magazine, Jordan Brenner spoke to the analytics manager of the Portland Trail Blazers, Ben Falk, about the Pacers problem:

"Baseline percentages are only broad summaries," Falk tells Brenner. "They may not always apply for a lot of reasons, including the other team's scheme and personnel. Against a team like Indiana, getting open shots for the right shooters, even if they are in midrange, can be a better-percentage play than forcing a tough shot at the rim."

Mid-range shots may generally be the worst shots in basketball, but there is always – always -- necessary context involved in a scheme. If the Pacers give up less than 100 points per 100 possession but are going to give up wide open mid-range looks, then if you can make half of those open shots you’ll be scoring more than a point per possession and therefore outperforming Indiana’s defense (in the general sense).

Fortunately for Miami, Chris Bosh fits the bill.

It’s easy to forget that Bosh barely played two quarters in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season, but when Erik Spoelstra committed to playing Shane Battier and LeBron James at power forward the team was without its safety valve. As a result, the HEAT shot 13-of-48 between the paint and the three-point line in their Game 2 and Game 3 losses.

Now, the HEAT have Bosh back in the equation. And the equation is adding Bosh, the league’s best high-volume mid-range shooter at 51.5 percent, to the Pacers defense, which gives up more mid-range shots than any team in the league (28.7 per game). On Sunday, the result was 24 points and nine made jumpers for Bosh and a 15-point victory for the HEAT.

Put simply, Bosh is the perfect antidote for a Pacers defense that doesn’t want to bring its big men out of the paint. This is especially true of Roy Hibbert, who in an early possession just let Bosh walk into an open jumper:

Similar to how the Chicago Bulls would often rather close out on a potential corner three than on a lower-percentage shot above the break, the Pacers keep tight the corners and, above all, don’t break paint containment just to help out on a mid-range shot. This is largely playing to their personnel, as pulling Hibbert away from the rim wouldn’t be taking full advantage of his height and length, but it also doesn’t play to Miami’s personnel.

Spoelstra doesn’t want his team relying on mid-range jumpers, especially off the dribble, but if Bosh is left open then the jumper, despite its reputation, is a positive outcome of an offensive possession. And with Indiana sticking to its system, Bosh was regularly left open, either as a popper off a pick-and-roll or a simple spot-up option:

“Usually bigs aren’t used to playing that kind of coverage and they’re not used to going up there,” Bosh said. “We’ve been in different situations so many times, it’s like sometimes I’ll be low, sometimes I’ll be high. I don’t like to give guys the comfort of knowing where I am, so I’m constantly moving my spots. “There are always holes in the defense, no matter what defense we play,” he added. “Even against us, and our holes, you have to find it. You have to get there and take advantage.”

While this is partially speculation, there is a psychological benefit to Bosh and the rest of the team knowing exactly what they can get against the Pacers. Familiarity breeds comfort, and the better the HEAT know where the safe pockets are against Indiana’s defense, the more comfortable they’ll be. That doesn’t mean the mid-range has to dominate an offensive game plan, but there is certainly added value to being able to finish off any possession using a quick high pick-and-roll with the knowledge that such a simple action is going to free up a high-percentage look.

For example:

While Tyler Hansbrough recovers reasonably well to the ball here, what is noteworthy is that D.J. Augustin – defending a sub-30 percent three-point shooter in Norris Cole – barely takes a step toward Bosh despite being in the best position to offer help (Hansbrough is closer, but Augustin has the better opportunity to be proactive and affect Bosh). In the HEAT’s system, Augustin likely helps onto Bosh, starting the chain reaction of defenders helping the helper. If possible, the Pacers hold position and maintain containment, trusting the players to recover and contest shots.

Indiana’s is still an excellent defense, but compared to Miami’s it is relatively safe – a low-risk endeavor playing the odds against you. And in a long playoff series there’s something to be said for the possibility of getting used to playing against one system, while the HEAT’s unpredictability can push a team back on its heels the same in Game 5 as in Game 1. This might not decide a series, but file this away should Miami and Indiana meet in the playoffs and you see Bosh getting these same jumpers or LeBron James using that pocket of space around the free-throw line as a point of attack off pick-and-rolls.

Bosh might make half of his mid-range shots, but James also is making half of his shots in the ever-elusive high painted area – a zone he entered at will during the playoffs. And if the HEAT go back to their championship lineup, starting Battier, it’s going to be Hibbert constantly dealing with the threat of that high pick-and-roll. All while David West attempts to contain the paint with Battier spotting up in the corner.