MILWAUKEE — Here at the NBA Finals is a stunning celestial basketball development: Shots are falling 15 feet from the sky.
They aren’t being launched; that would suggest faraway origins, like from behind the 3-point line. Instead, in what qualifies as a drastic contrast in the year 2021, they are indeed being shot, and they are aimed from mid-range spots on the court, mastered by a pair of Suns, Devin Booker and Chris Paul, who refuse to fall in line with the 3-point worship.
In that sense, the Suns are defying if not sticking a finger in the eye of analytics basketball by embracing an old-school shooting system that could produce a championship.
Paul has been a mid-range savant throughout his 16-year career and therefore, when it’s in the blood, it makes no sense to change just for change’s sake. His preferred method of attack is to dribble inward toward the paint, push his defender on the heels, then create space by stepping back and shooting softly from mid-range. This shot has made him rich in terms of acclaim and longevity and wallet.
Booker can shoot from distance but feels most comfy at 20 feet in. He’s shown throughout his six-year career, and especially in this postseason, that his mid-range shot is the sharpest weapon in his deep bag, especially when it’s taken off the dribble.
Watching this unfold on a nightly basis is Eddie Johnson, the former NBA sharpshooter and current Suns TV analyst — and hardly a subscriber of analytics basketball, which discourages “long twos,” meaning, the mid-range shot. Johnson is loving what he sees and wonders if the rest of the league will take note.
“Analytics is taking a hit,” Johnson said. “You got a team like the Suns that isn’t playing the way you think they’re supposed to play. With them, it’s not all 3s or nothing. That’s why Utah is sitting at home. That’s all they did was take 3s. They got hooked on it and I said months ago they’re going to get beat because you can’t depend just on that shot come playoff time. When that shot’s not going in, you’re in trouble. That’s what happened to them.
“You’ve got people in the front office on all these NBA teams who don’t understand that. They feel the game should be played a different way because the `numbers’ say so. Devin Booker and Chris Paul aren’t about that. Devin Booker is going down as one of the greatest scorers to ever play this game at the rate he’s going. And Chris covers the whole floor and not just the 3-point line. What those two guys are doing is fantastic. The 3 is a weapon but they don’t use it as their main arsenal. They’re saying, ‘Let me shoot a 15-footer in your face.’ That’s classic basketball.”
Johnson laughed. “Analytics people don’t like me.”
The league-wide shooting shift began roughly a decade ago when teams started making personnel decisions based on data. They hired managers who understood mathematics and probability and stats and gave them sway in the front office. Suddenly, the rate of 3-point attempts soared because the analytics people thought it was better to take that shot at an acceptable percentage — say, 35% — than stepping a few feet inside the 3-point stripe at, say, 10% higher. And also, it’s an extra point, obviously.
The ripple effect was massive and changed the game. Instantly, a groundswell of next-generation players on the grassroots level, sensing their best chance to reach the NBA was to follow the analytics, abandoned the mid-range game and were rewarded. Teams now run the same offensive sets and aesthetically, there’s little variety anymore. It’s all about spreading the floor with players stationed around the 3-point line. When he coached the 3-point-happy Rockets, Mike D’Antoni said the Rockets never practiced mid-range shots, not even in warmups.
There was a telling moment in a game this season where the Nuggets had a four-on-one fast break and the three wing players instinctively sprinted to the 3-point line, rather than fill the lane for what would’ve been an easy layup. The Nuggets failed to score on the play, and the sequence became a blooper.
“The 3 has always been a weapon but unfortunately we had a group of (general managers) who understood numbers more than actual situations in a game, and they got into the minds of owners,” Johnson said. “They won them over. They were against all those things that were so opposite of how I understood the game growing up, where you take what the defense gives you, take the highest percentage shot, where you develop touch and learn to shoot the ball from the inside, then you work your way out. That mid-range shot helps you develop rhythm.
“You know why guys shoot the 3? Because it’s OK if they miss and shoot 35%. Nobody holds it against them. But if you’re missing 10-footers, everybody in the stands is saying, ‘Dang, he can’t even make close-in shots.’ These guys would rather take a bad 3 than take two dribbles in and shoot a 15-footer.”
Booker and Paul are taking advantage of the Suns’ greatest strategy — the pick-and-roll — and using it to create angles that enable their mid-range shooting. Once the pick is set and the defensive matchup changes as a result, Booker and Paul use their quickness to create mismatches and either attack the rim or shoot from mid-range, more often than shooting from deep.
Booker patterned his style from his idol and mentor, Kobe Bryant, and said: “Kobe took advantage of the full floor. I always wanted to have a complete shooting game, to be able to score from anywhere, not just one place.”
Also: Deandre Ayton, the Suns’ 6-11 center, plays that position in a traditional manner. Rather than shoot 3s like an increasing number of big men, Ayton sets screens, then rolls to the basket for layups. He doesn’t “pick-and-pop,” he pick-and-rolls toward the rim to get a higher percentage shot.
“There’s the mindset that you’re not going to make the league if you don’t shoot 3s, even if you’re a 7-footer,” Johnson said. “I think it’s Fool’s Gold. Look at Deandre, he’s not taking 3s, and he has an opportunity to win a championship because he’s dominating.”
Contrast this to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who often positions himself behind the 3-point line off the pick-and-pop, rather than post up, where he stands a better chance of success. Giannis is shooting a ghastly 19.4% from deep this postseason despite defenders giving him plenty of room.
“It makes me want to throw up,” Johnson said, “because he can’t shoot a 3. You won the MVP (twice) being good at what you do. Stay with it and build on it. You don’t take the shot just because people back off you. They’re giving you a 15-footer, a 12-footer, too. They’re backed up to the dotted line. So take two dribbles in and take a 10-footer, then work your way back. He’s buying into the mentality of the system, because everybody does it, there’s peer pressure, and he wants to prove to everybody that he can do that. I want to tell him, `Don’t drink the Kool Aid.’”
Johnson scored over 19,000 points in his career and makes it clear there’s room for both mid- and long-range shots, but the reality is the ratio is unbalanced. Plus, teams and players are actually shooting 3s at a higher percentage than ever. The Clippers shot 41% on 3s this season. Six teams shot 38% or better. The percentages between 2s and 3s still favor the shorter shot, but the gap is narrowing.
Therefore: Teams are shooting 3s in bunches. The Jazz took 43 per game this season, nearly half of their total attempts. Three teams averaged 40 or more. Even the Suns ranked among the top half of the league in 3-point attempts, and in Game 2 of The Finals, they actually used the shot to win. Of their 43 field goals, a franchise-record 20 were from deep.
However: Booker (29 point average in The Finals) and Paul (27.5) are punishing the Bucks with a steady stream of mid-range shots on the biggest stage, and it’s the main reason the Suns are up 2-0 in this series.
“It’s huge because everybody is trying to take away the rim and the 3-ball,” said Suns coach Monty Williams. “That, to me, is why it’s such a weapon. I think anybody that can shoot that shot, they should. We told our guys that if you have confidence in a shot, shoot it. The guy that (sold) me on that shot was Kevin Durant in OKC. I would see him win games with that shot. I grew to have an appreciation for guys who can knock down that shot, and that certainly has helped us.”
Curiously, Paul and his former team, the Rockets, failed to reach the NBA Finals three years ago against the Warriors because their bread-and-butter shot turned soggy in the Western Conference finals. Yes, Paul did suffer a hamstring injury in Game 5 of that series and sat the final two games, but in Game 7, the Rockets missed 27 straight from deep and imploded against a more balanced Warriors team.
Speaking of the Warriors and Stephen Curry: Were they exclusively a 3-point team during their championship runs? Not really, said Johnson.
“The Warriors don’t play that way, even though people thought they did. Everything they ran was from the mid-post. Curry and Klay Thompson running off screens. If they get the 20-footer they’ll take that. They balance their shooting.”
Rolling through the list of previous NBA champions, not many were extreme with the 3-pointer. The Lakers last season were average shooters from the distance. The Heat during the Big Three Era — a coincidental nickname, by the way — leaned on twos from LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, none of whom were 3-point specialists. They were beaten one year by the Mavericks, whose star, Dirk Nowitzki, became an all-time great by shooting one-legged twos.
Johnson wonders if many players today even have the technique to shoot from mid-range.
“They have no idea how to stop and shoot a 10-footer because they can’t do it,” he said. “The analytics people want to glorify a floater which is a more difficult shot because you’re shooting on the move instead of pulling up. When you pull up, you’re going straight up with great balance, the rim’s not moving and you jump up and execute. They can’t do it. I paid attention to analytics when I played; I just didn’t use it to death, like, `Oh, I’m not going to shoot on the left side of the floor because somebody told me that’s where my percentage lacks.’ No, I’m going to get into the gym and work on it.”
Will the next generation of players study the Suns and add the mid-range? Also, will other NBA teams —because this is a copy-cat league — seek more balance in the future if the Suns win the title?
Johnson believes what’s old can become new again:
“Things have a way of coming back around. At one point everybody laughed at us because we wore tight shorts. Well, have you noticed the shorts in the NBA now? Showing their legs off. Same thing with this over-reliance on the 3. It’s going to wear out, too.”
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