After falling just short of the NBA title in 2011, the Miami Heat were reborn in a cloud of buzzwords. Erik Spoelstra spent his offseason scrubbing the whiteboard clean, picking the brains of fellow coaches and starting from scratch. He emerged with "pace and space" -- simple ideas that would be repeated and enacted so often that they now stand as the Heat's philosophical fabric.
The ideas of using tempo to advantage and spreading the floor were not revolutionary. What made them so was the collective talent and intelligence of those players involved. We saw that catalytic effect at work on Sunday night, when the Heat offense maneuvered its way to a 98-96 Game 2 win on the Spurs' home floor. Upping the pace at times was helpful. Creating space for drives to the rim was valuable. Yet Miami evened the series through the transformative value of an unstoppable star making basic basketball decisions. LeBron James is that good, and as we were reminded Sunday, he sets himself apart nightly with pristine decision making.
Sound judgment is no mere undercurrent. James is the player he is -- the best in the league and perhaps the best ever in due time -- because of the potent simplicity of his decisions with the ball. Take this play, where a swing pass on the perimeter ends with the most efficient shot possible:
James is a 44-percent shooter on spot-up threes, per Synergy Sports, yet in this case he traded a great look for the best look. With a single dribble he sent Kawhi Leonard reeling, and at the point of elevation Tim Duncan could only swipe as high as LeBron's elbow. Had he taken the open jumper initially offered, James stood a good chance of cashing in for three points. Instead he made a brilliant play that rocketed his scoring odds as high as possible. There is no surer play in basketball than a LeBron James finish at the rim, and on this sequence he made sure to get there.
That's important to remember coming out of a game where James also dropped in jumper after jumper en route to 35 points. LeBron scored from all over, though his performance -- only a fraction of which registered in the box score -- was anchored by the buoyant logic of making the best situational play. If given the space to do so, James will make the right call more often than almost any other player in the league. That itself can be terrifying for opposing defenses, who then are tasked with matching his precision or living with the results. Sometimes that works out:
And at other times it results in a back-breaking, go-ahead three-pointer:
Even if San Antonio guards against these sequences the best it can, James is himself a living, breathing trigger for defensive breakdown. He gets into the paint too often and can finish over a single defender too easily. With that, LeBron's every move invites the pressure that he so readily exploits. For opposing defenses it's less a matter of discipline than survival. There is no choice but to overreact to a scoring threat this imposing.
James is the rare player whose superstardom cannot be used against him. Seldom is LeBron baited or prodded into anything particularly unwise, even though he finds himself in a position to force the action almost every trip down the floor. His shot attempts are crowded from multiple angles. He faces incredible (if artificial) pressure to score and to win. He squares off against the best defenders in the league and has entire game plans built to smother, bully and/or distract him. Somehow still James operates through an eerie calmness of mind, seeing through the traps to ascertain a situational truth. It's easy to get caught up in awe of LeBron as a physical specimen, but he separates himself completely in his poise and prudence. Those qualities are the key to Miami's success beyond star power, and the agent that elevates "pace and space" beyond its core simplicity.
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