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The Shot Distribution Codebreaker

If you want to know how a team is adjusting to various opponents in the postseason, look at how its shots are distributed — it’s the key to understanding the tactical tweaks from game to game, and series to series

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Remember when the 3-point shot seemed revolutionary? Maybe you’re old enough to remember when the line was first adopted in 1979. I remember shouting at Antoine Walker for jacking up deep 3s early in the clock. Maybe you’re a New Yorker who felt a dagger through your heart when Reggie Miller drained buzzer-beaters. But now, it all feels normal.

This season, a record 31.4 percent of shot attempts were launched from behind the arc, and in the postseason that number has risen to 33.6 percent. Modern offenses have dumped midrange shots in favor of long-range attempts and layups and discarded isolation plays for sets that rely on ball movement. They used to say live by the 3, die by the 3; now it’s thrive by the 3.

This new era of basketball has been fascinating to watch through shot distribution trends. Sometimes a team will shoot progressively more 3s over the course of the year — this season’s Bulls, for example — with the realization that they need to take ’em to have any chance of winning. Shot distribution can also tell the story of how a trade influences a team’s style of play, too. But shot distribution trends are particularly interesting in the playoffs. The postseason is its own basketball environment. There are fewer opponents, more practices, and more days off to scheme and adjust. Changing your basketball identity is hard, but teams do make tweaks. And looking at postseason shot distribution can tell us a lot about those adjustments.

Here’s a look at four teams whose shot distribution has changed this postseason:

Note: Unless specified otherwise, “midrange” references all 2-pointers except for shots in the restricted area.

Houston Rockets

The Rockets are long-range poster boys, but layups and dunks are just as much of a priority for Mike D’Antoni. This season, they attempted a league-high 81.8 percent of their shots from the restricted area and 3-point range, which has increased slightly this postseason (82.3 percent). But they did make a noteworthy change in the first round of the postseason: They tried 6 percent less 3s against Oklahoma City, which led to a rise of 6.2 percent in restricted-area attempts.

Sometimes the best way to beat a superior power is to bait it. Oklahoma City’s defense influenced Houston’s decision-making by sticking to shooters rather than helping on drives to the basket. It looked as if the Thunder would give James Harden space to attempt a layup, only to set up a block attempt by Andre Roberson or Steven Adams. At times, it worked. But for the most part, it didn’t. Houston still had a 109.7 offensive rating. They traded 3s for layups, dunks, and free throws.

The Spurs did not have time to bait Houston in their violent 126–99 Game 1 loss. They were too busy getting their doors blown off. The Spurs hedged on pick-and-rolls with Ryan Anderson screening for Harden, which opened up 3s. They helped off shooters on Harden drives, freeing kick-out 3s, and when they didn’t, they couldn’t stop lobs to Clint Capela.

No matter what the Spurs did, the Rockets were able to get the ball where they wanted, adapting to whatever the defense gave them. “If we’re open we shoot them, if we’re not we’ll drive,” D’Antoni said after the game. “Most of the time the defense dictates.” Houston unloaded 22 3s on 50 total attempts. For the game, they took only 14 shots from midrange. Daryl Morey must’ve been having an analyticsgasm.

The Spurs will make adjustments. We all saw LaMarcus Aldridge the same way Shea Serrano does, and so did Gregg Popovich. David Lee and Pau Gasol looked hopeless. They need to give Dewayne Dedmon more minutes — he’s a mobile big who won’t get toasted by Anderson like Gasol did. Starting Jonathan Simmons over Gasol needs to be considered, too. The Spurs need to get faster; otherwise, they’ll perish.

There might not be a change the Spurs can make to keep up with the Rockets when they’re making 3s like this. The Rockets got back to playing their typical game in Game 1, and they aren’t turning back.

Boston Celtics

The Rockets are strange, but they’re not alone. Two other teams also attempted over 70 percent of their field goal attempts from the restricted area or 3-point range: the Nets (71.9 percent) and the Celtics (71.3 percent). Boston has only intensified its progressive style this postseason, taking 79 percent of shots from the restricted area or behind the 3-point arc, while attempting 7.7 fewer midrange attempts.

The Celtics and Rockets found similar results by different means. Harden is the main source of offense for the Rockets, while the Celtics featured a great deal more on-ball and off-ball action. Here’s one set the Celtics ran a bunch in Game 1 against the Wizards:

There are three primary options off this one action. The player receiving the handoff (Isaiah Thomas) can attack, or he can pass to the screener (Jae Crowder) or the roller (Al Horford). Thomas often fires 3s (or draws fouls) out of dribble handoffs, but in this instance he hits Crowder for the trey. Horford might’ve also been open for a dunk, a scenario which manifested later in the game.

Avery Bradley takes the place of Thomas and finds Horford for the slam. Bradley will sometimes pull up from midrange in this situation, but that’s a far less preferable result so early in the shot clock. The Celtics are at their best when the ball and their bodies are moving, because it gets the defense out of position, freeing space for 3s or attacking lanes to the basket. Early-2000s Antoine Walker would’ve lived for this.

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors feasted on the midrange during the regular season, and DeMar DeRozan took the baton from Kobe Bryant as the modern master of the shot. I love a 3-point avalanche as much as anybody, but variety is nice. Which makes the team’s migration to the arc all the more concerning. The Playoff Raptors are starting to conform to modern trends.

After getting off to a bumpy start against the Bucks, the Raptors transformed themselves by favoring side-to-side ball movement and minimizing their typical isolation sets. It was like watching a different team. In their dominant Game 5 win over the Bucks, they tallied 28 assists on 41 made buckets. It was only their 10th time all season and playoffs with an assist percentage over 60.

The Raptors not only moved the ball more, they started taking fewer midrange jumpers. During the regular season, they attempted over 41.5 percent of their shots from midrange, sixth most in the NBA. Against the Bucks, that number dropped to 32.6 percent, which would’ve ranked in the bottom eight in the regular season. It’s not a coincidence that seven of the 10 teams that take the lowest rate of midrange shots also rank in the top 10 of assist percentage.

The Raptors moved the ball more and took more 3s, and that’s how they’ll have to play to thrive against the Cavs. Head coach Dwane Casey knows it. “Ball movement is going to be huge,” Casey said on Sunday. “We’ve got to have ball movement against this team.”

Nothing happened according to plan for the Raptors on Monday. When they did move the ball, it lacked intent and fluidity. They also reverted back to their old ways, attempting 41.6 percent of their shots from midrange — a near equivalent to their regular-season distribution (41.5 percent). There were too many instances of players passing up spot-up 3s for isolations:

Serge Ibaka needs to be ready to shoot this 3 and Cory Joseph can’t be forcing contested jumpers early in the clock for the Raptors to have any chance of keeping up with the Cavaliers. LeBron almost wiped out the Raptors with one dunk, but their prehistoric shot distribution will be the asteroid.

Utah Jazz

The influence of a defense on shot distribution can be observed in the postseason. The Jazz attempted 8.4 percent less shots from restricted area and 7.1 percent more from the rest of the paint, which speaks to the DeAndre Jordan Effect. The Clippers center deters players from trying him at the rim, so it’s important for opponents to hit their runners and floaters when they get daylight.

Watch how Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson don’t even bother continuing their dribbles knowing Jordan is lurking:

The Jazz shot 54 percent on runners against the Clippers, which would’ve ranked first in the league by a wide margin during the regular season. There’s also the fact that Utah’s lob king, Rudy Gobert, played only 107 minutes and took only 25 shots. He thrives off lob dunks and layups. About one quarter of Utah’s restricted area shot attempts this season came from Gobert. The Jazz need him to be playing at maximum strength in order to take advantage of their best interior threat against the Warriors.