LeBron James made his buzzer-beating game-winner against the Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals look so easy that you could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that he executed it with his off-hand. That's doubly true when you consider how easy he made it sound during his post-game press conference.
"I made a layup," he said. "It's not like I made something from halfcourt. I made a layup. I've been doing that since I was eight years old."
Sidestep the debate about whether Pacers coach Frank Vogel erred in keeping center Roy Hibbert off the court on that final possession and you will find that the play serves as the jumping off point for another topic of discussion: How strong, exactly, is the 2013 MVP's "weak" hand?
Back in February, Michael Jordan opened up this can of worms when he told ESPN: The Magazine that he would defend James by encouraging him to go left, because he thought James would be more likely to settle for jumpers.
"So if I have to guard him," Jordan says, "I'm gonna push him left so nine times out of 10, he's gonna shoot a jump shot. If he goes right, he's going to the hole and I can't stop him. So I ain't letting him go right."
Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com crunched the numbers with Synergy Sports, finding that the Heat forward is, as you might expect, extremely proficient with his left hand and fully capable of getting to the rim with either hand. He also reported that James stood up for his southpaw skills.
"That theory is wrong, I guess," James said of the Jordan report.
According to their data, James drove left 52 percent of the time he found himself in an isolation situation this season and has shot 56.3 percent on those drives. Where does that field goal percentage rank in the NBA? Try first.
James scored an average of 1.13 points when going left, an efficiency that ranks him first in the league as well. Contrary to Jordan's opinion, the numbers say that James is actually better going left than right (he averages 48.5 percent shooting and 0.941 points going right). ... According to Synergy tracking, when James went left, he drove to the basket more often than he pulled up for a jumper.
James actually extended the Heat's winning streak (which eventually ended at 27 games) when he went left to beat DeQuan Jones for a game-winner against the Magic in March. Video via YouTube user NBAHighlightClips.
Frankly, James' left-handed highlight reel is longer and more entertaining than most players' right-handed reels. Midway through the third quarter against the Pacers, for example, James threw down a vicious lefty dunk when Udonis Haslem found him cutting from the perimeter.
So is this all just a case of James' amazing physical gifts and pure basketball talent oozing through both arms? He says the story isn't quite that simple.
FoxSportsFlorida.com reports that James credited his youth basketball coach, Frank Walker, will helping him develop his off-hand when he was a kid.
"Frank Walker, my Little League basketball coach, taught me how to make a left-handed layup," James said. "He wouldn’t let me dribble the ball until I got the right steps down and the right (form) to make a left-handed layup consistently. And so we used to do it before practice every day and during practice, and he always told me, 'You know, you’ll be a much better player if you learn how to make shots with both hands.'"
"He used to cry about it," said Frank Walker, James’ coach when he was growing up in Akron, Ohio . "He used to say, 'I can’t do it.' But I told him that you can’t play this game without using both hands. I told him, 'You’re going to need a left-handed layup one of these days.'"
Without question, James stands as the most physically dominant and gifted player of the post-Michael Jordan era. This particular skill development-- finishing with the off hand -- is one I've often thought is a no-brainer evolutionary step as the game continues to evolve. Clearly, ball-handling today has come a long way from where it was in the 1960s. In 50 years, isn't it possible, if not likely, that a majority of professional athletes will have sought out the competitive advantages provided by two fully-functioning hands?
Watching James go left, or watching John Wall dunk easily with either hand after jumping off either foot, or watching Mike Conley, a lefty, finish right-handed runners in the paint just feels like a taste of things to come from future generations. Ambidexterity really should be the hip, new trend for young hoopers. Surely, James is passing down Walker's lessons to his own kids. Just as surely, coaches across the country are watching James' success and listening to his words and applying both in their own teaching.