The NBA Still Has No Answer For Playoff LeBron
- After trailing 3-1 in last year's Finals, LeBron James has won 11 straight playoff games heading into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. How has he done it? By torching everything.
Before he even made it to the NBA, LeBron James was enveloped in mythology. The language surrounding his debut was overtly religious. The idea of James as a “Chosen One” was more than a headline—it became a literal marking, made real when needle met skin. The die was cast. Plenty of teenagers have sprung up in basketball under the weight of expectation, but none with as much of an internalized, self-propelling legend as LeBron. There are hundreds of thousands of invocations of “LeBron James” and “messiah.” In the years since, we’ve seen LeBron the prodigy, LeBron the inevitable, LeBron the villain, and LeBron the redeemer. Now we’re treated to LeBron the conqueror, an amazing fulfillment of athletic promise borne out in 11 straight playoff wins dating back to last year’s Finals.
That adding four more in the conference finals seems a fair expectation affirms just how untouchable LeBron has become. No player in the league is more upset-proof. Even the mid-season hand-wringing over the Cavs’ defense and their flip-switching dexterity came heavily qualified. This is LeBron James. His teams have gone to the NBA Finals in each of the last six seasons. One might buy the premise of Cleveland coasting as it did in postseasons past, but James’s new means of pacing himself is to squash opponents in four games before taking a week off between series. It is an astonishing, merciless tact that leaves opponents with no room for hope. Whatever their run, James will answer it.
This year’s Cavs are his best-spaced team yet. Flank him with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and LeBron will hunt down an opponent’s limitations. Surround him with role players and reserves and he’ll set up shooters all over the floor. Pushing LeBron only brings out the problem solver in him. He would love nothing more than to move pieces all around the court—with a pick-and-roll here and a post-up there—to set up Channing Frye to beat you.
One of the most efficient superstars in the history of the sport has come to play an even leaner game. In those 11 straight wins, James has averaged 34.9 points on 64% true shooting. He bulls his team into the bonus by shooting so well at the rim (71.3%) that fouling him becomes an act of necessity. He creates three after three after three for a rotating cast of sharpshooters, so many of whom have gone strangely unbothered. Not only are opponents forced to pick their poison, but James ensures that one way or another, it is delivered with expediency.
The reality is that no defense can make LeBron take a shot he doesn’t want to. Channel him toward some desired end and James will push to find something better. He doesn’t even let an intended result box him in. Should something more promising materialize, he reacts with uncanny promptness:
There is no hesitation. James doesn’t need to crunch all the possibilities when he’s already calculated so much of the game into if-then contingencies. When he sees a helping defender, that’s as good as knowing where they came from. The opponent might have switched three or four times on a possession but still James knows where the ball needs to go and for what purpose. Calling this a “read” does a disservice to how quickly LeBron makes sense of everything around him. Other playmakers read. LeBron just knows.
He knows how to arc a pass just so that a defender in rotation might mistake it for a shot:
He knows the exact placement and timing of a pass that could turn a teammate’s cut into a dunk rather than a contested layup:
And if all else fails, he knows that while descending from his jump, he can rocket an underhanded pass to a teammate – despite three bodies between them – in such a surprising way that it frees that teammate to shoot:
The only appropriate response is exasperation. Wherever LeBron goes in the playoffs, heads hang. Shoulders slump. Palms turn up as teammates bicker. There is amazingly little that can be done when James, some 90 feet away from the basket, decides he wants to make a push in the open court:
This isn’t a fast break—it’s force of will. Toronto reshaped its roster over the course of several years in an attempt to counter James, specifically. DeMarre Carroll and P.J. Tucker were added for the expressed purpose of meeting LeBron’s drives with strength. James overwhelmed them on command. Serge Ibaka was brought in to switch if necessary and to protect the rim. James toyed with him. One of the best teams in the Eastern Conference was shooed off the floor when LeBron decided it was time, and couldn’t get a word in edge-wise before the series was through.
No team in the league can reckon with LeBron and yet over the course of those last 11 wins, he’s afforded opponents but brief stretches to make up ground in his absence. For 43 minutes, James will pick you apart. In the five that remain, you can only hurriedly try to piece things back together before it’s too late.
Miss even a few makeable shots in that span and it could be done. Botch a few passes and a promising run might fizzle. The heights of LeBron’s play burden every minute he’s not on the floor with a stifling pressure. How hopeless it is that those five minutes – or fewer, whenever James deems necessary—are all an opponent gets to counteract a masterwork. Playing against James has never been easy. Now it’s excruciating business, full of futile designs with no room for reprieve.