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Clippers star Kawhi Leonard refines his mid-range game

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard pulls up for a mid-range shot against Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Like the fullback and DVDs, basketball’s mid-range jumper has been for years on a precipitous decline toward extinction.

NBA offenses used to be built around it. A decade ago, the league’s highest-scoring team took 24.6 shots a game in the space between the paint and the three-point line. More than half the league averaged more than 25.

Now that area — not as valuable as a three-pointer, and not as high percentage as a shot in the paint — is no-man’s land. This season’s mid-range leader, the San Antonio Spurs, averaged 21.6 attempts.

Into this void dribbles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, who continues to take the shot that is, for him, as accurate as it is anachronistic.

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Leonard has made 80% of his shots between 10 and 14 feet in this postseason. Zoom out a little more, between eight and 16 feet, and Leonard is shooting nearly 74%.

Leonard has been one of the foremost practitioners of the dying art for several seasons, meaning it certainly was in Dallas’ and Denver’s scouting reports to stop, with multiple games to try out new defensive wrinkles. Yet Leonard continues to maneuver wherever he prefers on the court and rarely has missed once there.

“Just working on it, working on my game, being confident in my shot, and that’s pretty much it,” he said. “Just trying to get to my spots. I’m pretty much focused on all the areas in my game, but I’m able to get to my spots right now and make shots. ”

Clippers reserve center Montrezl Harrell is voted the NBA’s sixth man of the year after career-high averages of 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds this season.

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While leading Toronto to last season’s NBA championship, Leonard averaged 30.5 points in the postseason behind a varied offensive diet that hewed closer to the modern NBA’s trendlines: 29% of his shots were three-pointers and 23% were taken less than three feet from the rim.

This postseason: fewer three-pointers — and worse accuracy, from 37% to 30% — and fewer shots at the rim. Meanwhile, his share of jumpers between 10 to 16 feet has increased from 19% last season to 23%. The Clippers certainly aren’t going to argue: He’s made 76% of such shots.

Through seven postseason games, Leonard has averaged 32.3 points.

When he drives to his left and pulls up for a jump shot in isolation situations this postseason, he’s shooting 66.7%, according to Synergy data. Going right, it’s 55.6%.

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Scheming to create mid-range looks is so out of fashion that coach Doc Rivers acknowledged he’s running plays this season that he hadn’t run in eight years.

“I watched all his offensive sets from San Antonio to Toronto and it was a lot of the same thing,” Rivers said. “And then I did have a guy in Boston, Paul Pierce, who does some of the stuff that he did, and so we do run some of that. ... As [Clippers assistant] Ty Lue loves saying, ‘Man, you dusted off some of your old Boston stuff for Kawhi.’”

Leonard’s offensive repertoire isn’t the only element that feels as if from another era. He hasn’t tweeted since 2015. A family member runs his Instagram account. The last time Rivers was around a team leader as quiet as Leonard, the coach said, he was a point guard on the 1993 New York Knicks.

“Patrick Ewing was a little like that,” Rivers said. “He was very open with his teammates, but with everybody else, Patrick, you were not getting in, period. And so I think that’s the only similarities that I could draw.

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Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone went on a rant about the policy to not allow coaches’ families in the bubble. ‘Shame on you,’ he told the NBA.

“But they both are very similar in the fact that they work their butts off, and when they do talk, it’s about doing the right stuff, running the right play, executing. I mean, Kawhi is very demanding and particular in that, and so when he talks, I think it carries weight because he doesn’t talk a lot.”

The rest of the Clippers might not follow Leonard into the mid-range game, but they will continue to lean on the only player with championship experience for postseason guidance.

“He’s probably the calmest player I’ve been around,” forward JaMychal Green said. “Seems like he doesn’t sweat. He just be out there doing his own little thing.”

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Greif reported from Los Angeles.


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