When Chris Paul was shipped southward from Los Angeles to the Houston Rockets, it meant he would have to forego some of his patented, deadly midrange jumpers and embrace the Morey Zones of shots at the rim and from beyond the arc.
Long heralded as one of the league's top midrange mavens, Paul adhered to Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey's philosophy and launched a career-high 379 three-pointers this season, despite playing in just 58 games.
That increase in long-range bombs was accompanied by a dramatic decrease in midrange jumpers. Paul hoisted up just 3.1 midrangers per game this season, which was a career low, and the first time he's averaged less than 4.6 per game since the 2006-07 season. Furthermore, midrange shots composed just 22.6 percent of his total looks, only the second time in his career that mark has slipped below 30 percent (29.9 percent in 2004-05, his rookie year).
While Morey and Co. are correct in their assertion that midrange jumpers are the least efficient shot in basketball, open looks, especially from areas where a player has previously excelled, are the sport's crown jewels.
In last season's Western Conference Quarterfinals, the Spurs manipulated the Rockets' offense to their advantage, sagging bigs deep into the paint. James Harden, a devout follower of Moreyball, was flummoxed and often bypassed open jumpers outside the paint for tough layups at the rim.
With the Utah Jazz also employing drop coverage in the pick and roll, open shots from the midrange area have once again been readily available for the Rockets after they navigate around screens. Utah's guards fight over the top of screens to defend against pull-up jumpers while big men sink into the paint, inviting downhill blitzes to the rim, only to dash any dreams of an easy finish:
During the regular season, that scheme was incredibly effective, largely a product of Gobert's Defensive Player of the Year campaign. In pick-and-roll roll man sets, the Jazz ranked third in points allowed per possession (1.01) and in pick-and-roll ball-handler sets, they ranked fifth (0.80).
Led by future Hall-of-Famers Harden and Paul, and a springy rim runner in Clint Capela, Houston, meanwhile, crafted a three-pronged pick-and-roll attack, ranking third in ball-handler sets (0.93 PPP) and eighth in roll man sets (1.12 PPP).
Generally, good offense prevails against good defense and that's where Paul's presence has shined brightest against the Jazz, ensuring the Rockets don't experience another second-round collapse. His affinity for the midrange has counteracted Utah's defensive scheme as he's comfortable rising up around the free-throw line and canning open jumpers.
In four second-round contests, Paul has netted 12 of 22 midrange jumpers (5.5 per game, up from 3.1 in the regular season), while firing up a slew of other shots inside the paint that are classified as non-restricted area looks — though they certainly fall well within Paul's comfort zone (and outside the Morey Zones). Against the Timberwolves in the first round, Paul was just 5-of-10 on midrange shots, averaging two attempts per game.
The decision to opt for more midrange jumpers stems from Gobert's elite rim protection. Through four games, Paul has attempted, and made, just two shots inside the restricted area, which came on consecutive possessions in Game 2 when Gobert was on the bench.
Instead, Paul slithers around screens and showcases crafty dribbling as he slides to his spots, elevating only once he's in rhythm, cognizant of the fact that Jazz big men won't press up and take away the look he wants.
Defined by a methodical, calculated style of play, Paul has utilized the snake dribble after ducking around picks, particularly when he bounces from the right or left side of the court to the middle. In doing so, it forces the trailing guard to cover more ground while the opposing center has to react and harness some quick lateral movement — rarely a headlining skill for rim-protecting bigs:
Hoping Paul misses those shots is Utah's only bet. If a defender helps off to thwart Paul at the free-throw line, CP3, one of the greatest facilitators in NBA history, will simply sling it to a shooter flanking him around the perimeter.
Sometimes, the snake dribble isn't even a necessary tool. When Capela's screens have been rugged and forceful, trapping the defender like a fly in a spider's web, Paul has simply been able to zip to his desired spot and nail a jumper:
The second bucket is a prime example of optimal spacing. Capela and Paul run a pick and roll on the right side while Houston's three wings align around the perimeter on the left side of the court. Once Paul gets going downhill, he's so far isolated from any other defender that help defense isn't an even option. Gobert stays anchored at the rim and Paul buries a short jumper.
Paul's midrange wizardry has even forced Gobert to tweak his pick-and-roll defense at times. Below, Gobert cheats up, taking away the midrange area for Paul, and tracks him, but isn't in position to recover once Capela absorbs Paul's pass and gives up an easy layup:
Chris Paul was acquired to elevate Houston to another level and challenge the Warriors' dominance. His arrival has allowed for Houston to comfortably win games even when likely MVP James Harden has an off game, such as Game 4 when Harden tallied 24 points (8-of-22 shooting, 1-of-7 from deep), four rebounds, three assists and eight turnovers. Paul promptly stepped up amid his co-star's struggles, scoring 27 points (12-of-23, 1-of-6) and added 12 rebounds, six dimes, two steals and one block as the Rockets took a 3-1 lead, dismantling the Jazz 100-87.
The nine-time All-Star boasts a diverse offensive arsenal, one that will pounce on teams who give him step-in midrange jumpers like the Jazz, which makes Houston's pick-and-roll attack that much more dangerous. A move to Space City required Paul to alter his shooting profile and he did just that in his first season as a Rocket. But The Point God has made his living as a scorer from the midrange area and that's not something a season's worth of games can completely eliminate. After watching Paul drain a barrage of midrange jumpers and crack its pick-and-roll coverage, Utah is learning firsthand that perhaps Moreyball isn't a year-round sport — at least not for Chris Paul.
All stats and videos via Basketball Reference, NBA.com and 3Ball and are accurate as of May 7 unless otherwise noted.