NBA Finals 2021

NBA Finals 2021: Reliance on the mid-range exemplifies importance of postseason shooting balance

At its core, the NBA is a copycat league. Wherever innovation occurs, you can be sure the rest of the league will be quick to emulate those successes.

The last five years of the NBA have been defined by 3-point shooting and switching defence because those tactics yielded incredible results for some historically dominant teams. Most franchises couldn't simply add a Steph Curry, LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard to their rosters, but they could recreate the tactics used by the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors.

Like anything in this league, though, trends don't last forever. Inevitably, a team zigs while everyone else zags and sets the future of the league on a new trajectory. That next zig may have just happened in these Finals.

Like the stars of playoffs past, the other 29 teams can't simply recreate the dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, what is far more replicable is the shooting balance the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks used to reach the NBA mountaintop.

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Khris Middleton, Devin Booker and Chris Paul all put on dominant mid-range shooting displays in these playoffs. They finished first, second and third, respectively, in both mid-range attempts and makes in the postseason, with Booker topping the league in both categories.

Their mid-range games were foundational for their teams' playoff runs. The shots that most teams shun for 82 games became essential for four rounds and the teams who couldn't adjust got left behind.

Of the eight teams that advanced to the Conference Semifinals, six averaged more mid-range attempts in the playoffs than they did in the regular season. For the two that didn't, the Clippers were without their top mid-range shooter in Kawhi Leonard for eight playoff games and the Jazz were at the bottom of the league in mid-range shots all season long.

Capable mid-range creators don't only become more valuable the deeper you go in the playoffs, but also the deeper you get in a specific series. The Bucks averaged 12.8 mid-range attempts in Games 1-3 of their four series, but that number jumped to 14.2 per game in Games 4-7. The Suns followed that same trend as they took 16.3 mid-rangers in Games 1-3 and 19.5 mid-rangers in Games 4-7.

Good defences always make adjustments. The pet plays and motions that generated open layups and 3s in Game 1 will almost always get countered later in the series. The tougher opposing defences get, the teams get on players who can create their own looks in the mid-range.

Take Milwaukee's defence of corner 3s as a perfect example. In Games 1-3 over the four rounds, Bucks opponents hit 2.8 corner 3s on 6.2 attempts per game (45.9 percent). In Games 4-7, they hit 1.2 corner 3s on 4.0 attempts (30.0 percent). The Suns shot 10-for-17 from the corner in Game 2 of the Finals alone. In Games 3-6, the Bucks held them to a combined 3-for-10.

This was a Finals where defences forced 3-point shooting to be a piece of both offences, not the foundation of them. Milwaukee went from averaging 37.1 3-point attempts during the regular season to just 31.2 in the Finals. Phoenix shot 34.6 3s per game in the regular season and only 28.7 per game against Milwaukee.

The Bucks were eighth in 3-point attempts during the regular season. The Suns were 15th. While neither topped the league's 3-point race, both embraced 3s as a key aspect of their offenses. When it came down to it in the playoffs, though, mid-rangers and attacking the basket became the focus.

Milwaukee's 3-point attempt rate dropped to 38.4 percent in the playoffs. Phoenix's fell to just 35.0 percent. Looking back at comparisons from recent history, those numbers add a couple of interesting data points.

What those trends indicate to me is that we may be approaching a 3-point equilibrium.

Regular season 3-point attempt rate (3PAr) has been steadily climbing over the last decade. Playoff 3PAr had been proportionately increasing too - reaching an all-time high in the Bubble at 42.7 percent - until bouncing back down in these playoffs.

As teams attempted fewer 3s in these playoffs than they did a year ago, the average offensive rating actually rose from 111.3 to 114.3. Teams won't be able to ignore that slightly fewer 3-point attempts yielded notably more efficient playoff offence.

The other trend is that, while league-wide 3-point shooting has exploded since 2016, the playoff averages for Finals teams haven't changed much at all. The Cavaliers and Warriors were setting the league on fire with their shooting in 2016 but those teams are right in line with the Bucks and Suns who were 3-point averse by 2021 standards.

It's unlikely these Finals suddenly kick off a new era in the NBA but what the Bucks and Suns made clear was that balance is still king. The math that works over an 82-game sample doesn't always hold up in a seven-game series. Mid-range shooting became so taboo over the past handful of years that these playoffs may have uncovered the next market inefficiency.

Regardless of where the NBA trends over the next few years, the Bucks and Suns made it abundantly clear that the mid-range game is far from extinct.

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