DeMar DeRozan’s midrange mastery transforming Bulls in crunch time

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DeRozan’s midrange mastery fueling Bulls in crunch time originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

DeMar DeRozan thrives in fourth quarters. An avid boxing fan, he calls them his “championship rounds.”

For many, those stakes shake nerves. But for the Chicago Bulls star, they provide release. His mind clears. His focus sharpens. Countless hours of skill refinement – watch his feet waltz, his body contort, his wrist snap at the top of his release – bubble to the surface.

Trusting that process has yielded the Bulls tremendous early-season success. And trusting DeRozan, especially late in games, has meant trusting the midrange.

“He’s so good in the midrange,” Nikola Vučević said Sunday, after DeRozan victimized the Lakers for 19 fourth-quarter points in a 115-110 victory. “When he gets to his spot, there’s no one that can really stop him.”

There are nights it feels that way.

DeRozan is not only the league’s leading fourth-quarter scorer, averaging 8 points on 54.2 percent shooting, he is also one of its most lethal midrange assassins. His 72 fourth-quarter shot attempts from that zone sit 26 above second place – Brandon Ingram, 46 – and his 36 makes are as many as Kevin Durant, who ranks fifth in fourth-quarter midrange attempts, has taken.

That’s a 50 percent conversion rate for DeRozan (36-for-72) – a few ticks better than his already-impressive 47.6 percent midrange field-goal percentage in quarters one through three, and well above the league average of 38.2 percent. Whether a spinning fallaway, dribble pull-up, or hanging leaner, he stalks to his spots at his own pace – at all times, and from every inch of the court, a threat to pull or pump-fake. And he only needs an inch of space.

“I felt like anybody who thinks like that never played basketball, never been in situational basketball moments, understanding what basketball is like, what basketball is built off,” DeRozan said of the perception midrange shotmaking has been devalued in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “Some of the greatest players won with the midrange, the in-between.

“I always felt like if you master a craft at any spot on the floor, and become dominant at it, defenses gotta react to you. Shaq didn't shoot midrange jump shots, but he was so dominant where he was at, that's what he was great at. And you got Steph Curry, what he's great at, everybody can't be a Steph Curry. Everybody can't be a midrange dominant player. But for me, the way I just grew up idolizing the game of basketball, old-school guys.”

Indeed, DeRozan’s mastery was developed in the details. There’s a reason players often nostalgically refer to the midrange game as an “art.” The patience, footwork, body control and array of moves in his bag were amassed with hard work and influence from idols and respected peers alike.

“A person I always talk to, a guy I work with, Chris Paul, how great he is in the midrange and how he dictates offense, how he pick defenses apart with the midrange and you gotta react to that,” DeRozan said. “Competing against Melo (Carmelo Anthony), he dominated spots on the floor where he would see double-teams coming. You look at it today, Kevin Durant. It's a lot of guys that I've studied. I had a chance to pick their brains. Obviously, Kobe (Bryant) was my favorite player. He taught me so much, come to this game and being dominant and picking, choosing, understanding your spots on the floor.”

Paul is shooting 59.5 percent from the midrange in fourth quarters this season. Durant: 47.2 percent. Bryant's impact on DeRozan's game is evident.

And Anthony had the agonizing opportunity to witness DeRozan’s brilliance on Sunday, when the Bulls forward poured in eight of his 19 fourth-quarter points between midrange (4-for-7 shooting) to close out his Lakers.

“The fact that he utilizes the midrange,” Anthony said of why DeRozan is so effective late in games. “A lot of people want to kind of discredit that part of the game, but I think that's a lost art. I think the midrange game is a lost art. And DeMar is one of the guys who's mastered that.

“At the end of the game, when you gotta slow down and you gotta run something, 3s are not falling, you gotta be able to get to that. He mastered that. He mastered his spots on the court, and I think that's why he's very efficient, especially this season, in the fourth quarter.”

There’s that nostalgia again. But there’s a pragmatic element to DeRozan’s strategy too. Some teams are perfectly happy to cede midrange jumpers under the presumption of inefficiency, he said, and he’s happy to pluck the low-hanging fruit — especially late in games, when one basket can make all the difference.

“A lot of teams will live with it,” he said of midrange shots. “I look at it like, if a team will live with that, why not try to figure out how to master that and be dominant with that, since they gonna live with something? That's just my perspective of the game.”

The Bulls’ results since adding DeRozan to the fray provide proof-spiked pudding. As a team, they rank fourth in fourth-quarter offensive rating and fifth in fourth-quarter net rating after ranking 16th and 26th, respectively, in those categories last season – and they get a league-high 15.9 percent of their fourth-quarter points from the midrange.

Zooming in further, the Bulls are 9-6 in “clutch” games (defined by NBA.com as games that fall within a five-point margin with five minutes or less to play) this season after going 14-21 in such contests in 2020-21. They’ve dragged their clutch-time offensive rating up from 16th last season (107.3 points per 100 possessions) to third (124.1) in this one – and their clutch-time turnover rate down from 25th (14.3 percent) to eighth (9.3 percent).

Is all of that directly attributable to DeRozan? Not necessarily. Certainly, Zach LaVine’s presence has rounded out a devastating late-game attack.

But with DeRozan on the court in fourth quarters, the Bulls boast a plus-18.4 net rating (119.3 offensive, 100.9 defensive). In clutch time, that number rises to plus-19.1. DeRozan has not only shot 55.6 percent from the floor in 47 “clutch” minutes this season, he’s also knocked down all 21 of his free-throw attempts in those minutes – and with a 31.9 percent usage rate, he’s committed just one turnover against eight assists.

In every sense, he’s a stabilizing force during winning time.

“He's a guy that generally comes in later at night, and I think he really works on those kind of shots and getting to his spots,” Donovan said. “He's really good using his body, he's got great feet in tight spots, and he knows where he wants to get to and how he wants to get there. And he’s a willing passer.

“He's obviously been incredibly elite, really his whole entire career, but in particular for us, he's been elite in those situations when he gets there. If he's got room and space, and he can see and survey the floor, he's more than willing to read the defense and make the next best play if it's not an area he can get to for himself.”

Lately, those areas – areas out of DeRozan’s reach – have been hard to find. And the Bulls are benefitting.

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