For many players coming into the NBA, who are traditionally talented in one or two specific areas, the midrange game is the hardest to master. That's because it requires the most complex and creative approach, having to read two different defenders in close quarters, typically in a pick-and-roll set, and the spacing is tighter to get a shot off.
In his last seven games, Wall is shooting 51.6 percent (16-for-31) from 15 to 19 feet, up from 36.5 percent this season and 36.4 percent in 2012-13. And during that stretch, the Washington Wizards are 5-2, with Wall averaging 22.6 points, 7.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds.
In the past, Wall's shooting issues have been fading back, holding his release point too long and too tight, and not setting his feet in the direction of the basket. He also wasn't patient, constantly looking to explode to the basket, and that affected his balance off the dribble. He first made his mark in the league with his untouchable open-court speed, but when playoff games buckle down to half-court sets, midrange shooting is crucial. Just ask Tony Parker. Wall is beginning to show that next step, appearing in rhythm in pick-and-rolls, and jump shooting straight up and down with consistency and the right release point.
That also goes for Griffin, who is shooting 47.4 percent (9-for-19) from 15 to 19 feet and 52.9 percent (9-for-17) from 20 to 24 feet in his last seven games. On the season in those areas, he's only at 38.2 and 43.1 percent, respectively. After Griffin knocked down a midrange jumper on Dec. 26 against the Portland Trail Blazers, here was the conversation between TNT play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan and analyst Steve Kerr:
Now, the Los Angeles Clippers need to focus on locking in better defensively. In those seven games, going 4-3, they allowed 101.4 points per game. They also could use sharpshooter J.J. Redick, who was starting at the 2 but then got hurt, for an offensive spark. The team recently said that he could return around Jan. 15.
Here are 10 other observations from around the league this week:
1. Who said LeBron is only producing more in the post? During his media day press conference before the season started, LeBron James smiled at a reporter and said, "I got better. I'm a better basketball player than I was last year, in every aspect." He wasn't kidding. Not only has he become more efficient closer to the basket—make that now a ridiculous 80 percent shooting within five feet of the rim—but he's also improved his three-point shooting slightly, to 40.9 percent. He's done that every season since arriving in Miami in 2010.
Interestingly, it's James' marksmanship with corner threes that has seen the biggest growth. In 2011-12, it was 31.6 percent (6-for-19), then 48.8 percent (21-for-43) in 2012-13, and now it's 58.8 percent (10-for-17). At times, the Heat are clever to set up Ray Allen in the other corner, which keeps the defenders' heads swiveled 180 degrees to him, leaving James open on the opposite side—and the team utilizes skip passes well.
Opponents sometimes also forget about James as a corner three-point shooter because they might think that's not his specialty, but the numbers above prove otherwise. He's also smart and sneaky about cutting quickly to the corner, when Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade drive baseline.
There's also another pattern to James' corner three-point shooting: He tends to turn around to the fans or opposing bench and gives a fun stare or smile after knocking one down. He cherishes the moments when he's closer to the action, which happens when he's deep in the corner.
2. Significant three-point shooting dips: Speaking of James, after Stephen Curry rung up eight three-pointers on the Heat on Thursday night in the Golden State Warriors' win, he said this about the point guard (via the Oakland Tribune's Jimmy Durkin): "One of the best shooters this NBA will see." But oddly enough, Curry's corner three-point shooting has nose-dived to 33.3 percent (11-for-33), compared to 52.8 percent last season.
So what could be going on? The Warriors usually run two different types of plays for Curry to get looks in the corner: a staggered screen from one end to the other, and a V-cut screen where he fakes like he's making a dart through the paint but then runs through screens set by the team's two main big men, David Lee and Andrew Bogut, who seal off their defenders for him to get open in the corner. Most of the time, Curry is being set up in the left corner—perhaps because he can catch the ball more quickly with his shooting hand—but this season, he's clearly been off.
Curry has appeared to position his body a little too much to the left in his shooting setup, and he sometimes sways to the left as he's landing. That's made several of his misses clank off the left side of the rim. While Curry is arguably the league's best three-point shooter, there are times where he's off balanced through what always looks like a rushed release, and the stats show it's happening mostly in the corners this season.
In addition to Curry, there is another NBA superstar whose long-range accuracy has dropped off this season. While James Harden is only a 36.3 percent career three-point shooter, this season he's at 31.3 percent. The thing is, many of Harden's looks haven't appeared to be rushed, but many of his misses have hit the front of the rim—a trend that actually started last season, and here's a possible reason why: He's taking too many deep threes, which is why he doesn't always see pressure on the wing. Defenders are giving him that long, long ball.
In 2011-12, with the Oklahoma City Thunder, 28.1 percent of his made three-pointers came from 25 to 29 feet. Then last season, that climbed to 58.7 percent, and this season, it's at 54.5 percent (30 of his 55 makes have come from that distance). A big reason why the number was lower in Oklahoma City is that he was able to see more open space from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook's exquisite penetration and ability to pack the defense more into the paint.
In Houston, Harden is the main creator and distributor, but he's going to need more help from his point guards—Patrick Beverley, Aaron Brooks and Jeremy Lin—to get easier looks from downtown. Houston's playmaking at the point is something to watch this season and beyond. Could they make a trade before the Feb. 20 deadline? Without one, they might not have enough in that department to make a deep playoff run.
3. Icky Ricky: Some Minnesota Timberwolves fans might be pondering this in their heads, If Ricky Rubio was a better finisher, would that help our team avoid sitting at .500 (16-16)? In fact, the Timberwolves are 3-12 when Rubio scores seven points or less. With all of the improved point-guard scoring happening across the league this season, Rubio has gone the opposite way—and he's now in his third season. Perhaps time for a change?
Entering the new year, his .409 shooting percentage at the rim was the lowest for any player in the league with at least 75 attempts. That marks a continued progression in the wrong direction, starting in 2011-12 at 48.5 percent and then last season at 44.8 percent. It's unclear whether his lower percentage has to do with his recovery from left ACL repair, what is clear is that he's not seeking contact near the basket—he has career-low averages in free throws made and attempted—and tends to be too cute trying to score. His moves are also very linear to the basket, as he doesn't show enough creativity in the paint with floaters, spin moves and step backs, which many point guards nowadays demonstrate.
To make matters worse, Rubio hasn't improved his midrange shooting. His shot is still flat, and he has a delayed hitch at times at the top of his release. He also comes off pick-and-rolls awkwardly at times, where he shoots runners off one leg 15 feet from the basket. These are the kinds of things that Minnesota's player development staff has to be addressing, but Rubio has shown no signs of progress on the court. At least his three-point shooting has improved from 29.3 percent in 2012-13 to 35.1 this season. Seeing how Jason Kidd developed that part of his game in Dallas later in his career, it's critical for Rubio to become effective off the ball as a downtown threat, with Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic demanding double teams inside.
Rubio, still, is most effective passing (8.3 assists per game) and defending (2.8 steals per game—second-best in the league). But the Timberwolves are going to need him to score more this season and beyond, especially to alleviate some pressure off Love and Kevin Martin down the stretch. They're currently the third-worst closing team, with a negative-1.9 average fourth-quarter scoring margin.
4. Iguodala's impact in Golden State: With starting small forward Andre Iguodala out due to a left hamstring strain, the Warriors went 5-7 earlier this season. With Iguodala back, they're now on an NBA-best seven-game winning streak. As coach Mark Jackson said recently (via Rusty Simmons of The San Francisco Chronicle), "He's a guy who makes life so much easier for everybody on the floor."
You could say Iguodala's former team, the Denver Nuggets—losers of a league-high eight straight games—are missing him just a little bit. With a starting lineup featuring Ty Lawson, Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson, they lack a defensive stopper on the wing and a second facilitator. Chandler at the 3 position is not that guy; he's a straight scorer.
Iguodala, on the flip side, is the ultimate glue guy—a player who's not hung up on scoring, but can make plays off the dribble, has a high basketball IQ and can guard every position except for center. In fact, looking at the best two-man lineups based on plus-minus per 48 minutes, he's No. 2 and 3 overall alongside David Lee (plus-18.8) and Curry (plus-18.3), respectively. Defensively, he shut down Chandler on Dec. 23 (10 points on 4-for-12 shooting), and then on Dec. 31, he held Arron Afflalo (21.4 points per game) to 15 points (7-for-18 shooting). 'Dre—he doesn't like to be called Iggy—is also the team's second-best passer (5.0 assists per game) after Curry (9.6).
The Warriors are actually 16-3 when both Curry and Iguodala have played together. Curry also has rubbed off on Iguodala from beyond the arc. For a guy who's never shot higher on threes than 39.4 percent—which he did in his last season in Philadelphia—he's now at 46.6 percent. Iguodala has been enjoying the confidence that Jackson instills in the players in his free-flowing style offense.
5. Inside the Toronto Raptors' 9-3 record since Dec. 8: If you watched the Raptors upset the Indiana Pacers on New Year's Day, extending their winning streak to four games, you saw a defense that resembled the one they beat: a communicative and get-hands-dirty point guard leader (Kyle Lowry), length and athleticism on the wings (DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross), aggressive big men who read pick-and-roll coverages well (Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas), and five players collectively having active hands, denying the ball well and being ahead of the next pass in rotations.
Being keenly observant, the Raptors moved quickly into position to take three charges against the Pacers. In fact, the Raptors, who have improved from 98.7 points allowed in 2012-13 to 96.1 since Dec. 8 (when the Rudy Gay trade happened), are actually the third-best team in drawing charges (27) and total offensive fouls (83), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Lowry is the best in the league at both (19 and 39, respectively).
Without the isolation and mid-post reliant Gay, who is a volume shooter with a low PER, the Raptors have also improved their ball movement. In fact, before Gay was traded, they were dead-last in assists per game at 17.3. Since Dec. 8, they've been at 21.8. Coach Dwane Casey has given more responsibility to Lowry in pick-and-rolls, and he's flourished.
Lowry has lifted his averages from 14.3 points and 6.6 assists per game before Dec. 8 to 17.6 points and 8.7 assists since then. Johnson and Valanciunas also continue to develop as screeners and roll men, opening up the team's half-court offense more for the emerging Ross, who's been shooting 46.3 percent from three-point range since Dec. 8 (34 percent before).
6. Fisher is priceless: At 39 years old—the second-oldest player in the league after Steve Nash—Derek Fisher has remarkably missed only one game all season. His longtime trainer, Joe Abunassar, calls him "one of the hardest workers you'll ever see." What's even more remarkable is that he still throws his body around like he's 10 years younger. He's second overall in offensive fouls drawn at 25, according to Elias.
While Fisher's bread-and-butter three-point shooting has slipped—26.5 percent this season—he still has value with his heads-up intangibles for the 25-7 Thunder, in the same way Kidd was effective last season with the Knicks. From the 1996 draft, five players still remain: Fisher, Nash, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen and Jermaine O'Neal. While Marcus Camby was on the Rockets roster at the start of the season, he was waived on opening night when he was dealing with torn plantar fascia. He's currently not on any team, but that could change soon.
"Marcus is doing well," his agent, Rick Kaplan, told Bleacher Report. "He's still rehabbing and he does plan on playing when he completes his rehab—likely towards the end of the month."
7. Portland blazes another top defensive team: The Trail Blazers' blowout 134-104 win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Thursday night—tying a franchise record with 21 three-pointers—marked the eighth team they defeated this season who is ranked in the top 10 in fewest points allowed. Interestingly, entering the game, the Blazers and Bobcats were on opposite ends of offensive and defensive efficiency. While the Blazers had the best offense (108.3 points per game), they had the fifth-worst defense (102.6); the Bobcats, on the other hand, had the second-worst offense (92.3) and third-best defense (94.4).
The other eight teams include (from the start of the season): the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Warriors, Pacers and Thunder. The Blazers lost to the Heat on Dec. 28 on a game-winning three-pointer from Chris Bosh. The only top defensive team the Blazers haven't played yet is the Memphis Grizzlies.
So how can the Blazers themselves improve defensively? For starters, they allow the most points in the paint per game (49.1). Their biggest issues are: Damian Lillard is not aggressive enough on the ball (he needs to set the tempo, especially if he wants to get an All-Star nod); the Blazers switch a lot and they don't communicate enough on screens; they don't anticipate the next play well and react late too often on skip passes; and they fail to box out—which reflects in them giving up a sixth-worst 14.3 second-chance points per game. Instead, they tend to watch the ball go up as if their minds are already on offense.
While the Blazers have been engaging to watch offensively, fans of the Phoenix Suns in the past and last season's New York Knicks fans already know the feeling: It's all fun and dandy in the regular reason, but what more can the team do to win games besides making a lot of threes (10.6 makes per game—best in the league)? With the Blazers having the best record in the West at 26-7, that will be the biggest team question in the conference as the season transitions to more intense competition.
8. Speaking of the Suns ...: With their surprising 19-12 record—they upset the Clippers, 107-88, on Dec. 30—they have to be making Knicks coach Mike Woodson, who benefited from a two point guard starting lineup last season, jealous. That's, of course, because of Eric Bledsoe (18.0 points, 5.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game) and Goran Dragic (18.9, 5.9 and 1.4).
What's unique and fun to watch about the Suns' attack is that with Bledsoe and Dragic, they can basically run a half-court offense on each side of the court, facilitated by either point guard. And they can co-exist on the court at the same time—make that a plus-8.0 in 457 minutes together—because their craftiness and pick-and-roll ability keeps the ball moving and the team's spacing adequate.
That shows in this number: Six Suns players make at least one three-pointer a game. Bledsoe and Dragic are also feisty on defense, and their quick hands on the ball and in passing lanes enable the team to force turnovers in the back court, and then get out faster in transition and score the most of any team (19.4 points per game, 2.1 better than the Thunder).
There are two other players worth mentioning for the Suns: one is Channing Frye, who has had a remarkable recovery from an enlarged heart caused by a virus, which forced him to miss all of last season; the other is Gerald Green, who has found a niche after bouncing around the NBA, D-League and overseas. Both players have torched opponents from downtown—Frye at 41.1 percent (2.0-for-4.9) and Green at 38.3 percent (2.5-for-6.6).
9. Taking control: In the first quarter of the Knicks-Spurs game on Thursday night, Iman Shumpert knocked down two three-pointers and then took the team's offense on his shoulders a few times, which has been unlike him this season. On one possession, after he got stuck in the low post, he gave up the ball and then demanded it back from Amar'e Stoudemire and then pointed to him to set a screen on his defender. Shumpert used it and knocked down a jump shot.
Later in the period, Shumpert called for Stoudemire to set him a screen, and the guard passed the ball to his pick-and-roll sidekick dropping to the basket, which resulted in a dunk. At one point during the first 12 minutes of the game, MSG Network analyst Walt Frazier said, "(The Knicks) have been waiting for him, knowing that this should be a breakout season for Shump."
In the end, Shumpert poured in a career-high 27 points on 6-for-8 shooting from downtown. But what was notable was the decisive demeanor in which he did it, which also reflected in his game-winning offensive putback and defense, forcing Manu Ginobili into a turnover and ripping the ball out of Boris Diaw's hands.
Where Shumpert has to improve defensively is being more aware of and fighting through screens—Woodson, however, promotes constant switching—and on offense, he needs to play with better pace and be more aware of his surroundings in transition. He occasionally makes foolish turnovers with the ball. While he's a solid defensive rebounder (3.7 boards per 27.5 minutes), his mentality is to just run with the ball, but he tends to pound his dribble and move too disruptively without a sense of direction.
In half-court sets, Shumpert's midrange jumper and moves to the basket are also works in progress. But he is still the Knicks' best two-way player, and team needs more of his kind to make a run this season. Their players are still too offensive-minded at this point.
Speaking of midrange jumpers, Tyson Chandler hit two of them in the first quarter alone against the Spurs. From the start of his career until 2005, he would make more than 10 per season from 15 to 19 feet, but not at a high percentage. Then, he shut down midrange shooting until 2010-11, when he won a championship with the Dallas Mavericks.
That season, he finished with his best mark yet—46.2 percent (18-for-39). During most of his time in New York, he's hardly hit those kinds of shots, but this season he's back at it with five makes. While his accuracy needs work (38.5 percent), he's keeping opposing centers honest and creating some extra spacing on the court. That's always a good thing for the isolation-heavy Knicks.
10. Ever wondered which players get blocked the most? Here you go: Entering Jan. 2, the top five players this season were: David Lee (54 shots blocked), Evan Turner (53), Nikola Pekovic (50), DeMarcus Cousins (49) and Greg Monroe (46). What do the bigs, except for Turner, all have in common, besides being a focal point in their team's offense? They are not very athletic and don't use a lot of head fakes in the paint; they simply try to use their strength and jump hooks.
Pekovic, aided by his 291 pounds, follows up his failed attempts the best (21.2 percent of the time), and Lee is the worst of the four (9.5 percent). All four of them convert well at more than one point per play on offensive putbacks (according to Synergy Sports).
While Turner dunked on LeBron James back on Oct. 30, he's typically not a strong finisher and he goes right into contact softly with not a lot of explosiveness. He also doesn't use a lot of spins or head fakes in the paint, and to make matters worse, he dribbles with his head down and doesn't always look to rise up early and jam it down on opponents. At 6'7" with a respectable 34.5" vertical leap, Turner should utilize those assets more to his advantage, but he tends to look smaller on the court around the basket.