A Post Game in the Playoffs

Six weeks ago, LeBron James was one of the most efficient post-up players in the league. He was more efficient, by points scored for every possession in the post, than both Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. His post game also lacked identity. He put a rocker-step to heavy use, but his fledgling arsenal, with a running hook shot in development, wasn’t scrawling a functional narrative for the casual observer.

Efficiency without consistency of style has long been an NBA grey area, and no exception was made for James.

But as the game-to-game audience grew for the postseason, the sheer amount of eyeballs would be enough to tug the discourse along. Miami HEAT assistant coach David Fizdale said the playoffs would be a coming out party for James’ post game. Now, on the eve of the NBA Finals, we get to ask, has it?

Here comes the yes, but,. Statistically, yes. Effectively, yes. But have the myths adapted? No.

Back to the Abacus

There’s a reason we start with numbers. We all fancy ourselves detectives, in one form or another. To a person, any sports fan is reasonable enough to out-deduce Sherlock Holmes based on whatever observational evidence that is collected. When we’re alone, that is.

Together, we’re mostly attracted to the wildness of theorem. Overconfidence grows in the method of logic as thinking becomes a competition, a race to see who can put the puzzle together the quickest, regardless of how many pieces are on the table. The more voices there are, the more facts get strangled out of the conversation. And it’s the theories based on arrogant prognostication that are most impossible to disprove.

So, we begin with the purest facts we have before we delve into the abstract, such as the thought of having or not having something that is simply, an idea. And the numbers say LeBron James is still ranked as the 19th most efficient post-up player in the league. In the 15-game sample size of the playoffs, he’s neither drastically improved or worsened. The regular-season pace has been sustained.

In those 15 games, James has used 31 possessions logged as post-ups by SynergySports. He has posted up many more times, which we’ll get to later, but in those possessions, which end in either a shot, foul or turnover, James is shooting 13-of-24, or 54.1 percent. He has five turnovers – just two of the live-ball variety – but none came against the Boston Celtics and just a pair were committed against the Chicago Bulls. Assuming he made all four free-throws on his two full trips to the line, a luxury we’ll afford a comparison in a moment, James is contributing exactly one point for every post-up possession in the playoffs.

To put these numbers in context, we’ll use Dirk Nowitzki, he of a deservedly revered postseason performance to date. Nowitzki has used 109 post-up possessions in the playoffs alone, just short of the total amount of post-ups Paul Pierce used in the entire regular season. He, too, has been remarkably efficient.

Nowitzki shot 39-of-79 in those possessions, or 49.3 percent. He committed 11 turnovers, and in his greatest advantage over James, drew 15 shooting fouls. If we extrapolate that out to 29 points off free-throws, accounting for an and-one, then Nowitzki has scored 107 points in 109 posssessions, or just below James’ flat-rate 1.00 PPP.

The point here is not to say one extraordinary player has been better than another, only to provide a foundation for the idea that James continues to be an efficient post-player. At least when he actually uses the possession.

Drawing the Double

Before the playoffs got underway, Fizdale, who has been working with James on various post moves all season, had been pushing Erik Spoelstra to feature James in the post even more than they already had. To that point, James was using around two post possessions a game, with a few more called for that he passed out of.

Now Fizdale estimates that the team is calling for 7-to-10 post-ups from James every game. Even if we take the low number, that means in Miami’s 15 playoff games, James has had the ball in the post over 100 times. But if he’s only used 31 possessions, where did all the others go?

In all those other instances, James passed. He either kicked the ball back out, found a cutter or powered the ball across the paint to the weakside, where an open teammate waited. And he does this because when James receives the ball in the post, there is, the majority of the time, someone open.

In one of the more interesting subplots of Miami’s playoffs, James, an unproven back-to-the-basket player in the eyes of so many, has become an automatic double in the post. Throw the ball to him on the block and a second player is coming, be it a center creeping along the baseline, a guard digging down from the arc or a wing shading across the middle of the lane, waiting to pounce on the first dribble.

“You can only do it once to him, if that, and then he’s figured out what you’re doing,” Fizdale said. “He’s the kind of guy you’ve got to constantly change on him. And that’s what Dallas is great at. They have so many veterans they can all be on the same page when they change defenses and they can be good at it.”

That was Chicago’s plan in the Eastern Conference Finals, but it didn’t last long. James was finding open teammates with such regularity, particularly when Spoelstra moved Chris Bosh across the paint, that the Bulls were often conceding an open 15-footer by default.

“It was hurting them on the weak side. LeBron says, ‘OK, you’re going to bring another guy in here?’ Boom, boom, boom, he’s just seeking guys out,” Fizdale says, miming James’ passes out of the post. “We’ve modified his game to a point now where you can’t just load up on him.”

So the Bulls left Luol Deng by himself until James made a move into the paint, and James shot 5-of-9 out of the post in the series. Naturally, he did it with shots we hadn’t seen from him at all during the regular season.

The Fallaway of Lore

To this day, the single shot most associated with the post-game of wing players is the fallaway as mastered by Michael Jordan. It is the Cadillac of post-moves, the sky hook of the guards, the weapon of choice of Dirk Nowitzki. Despite it not being incredibly efficient, it is a shot great players can get against any defense. And because it also looks tough to perform, it is the standard.

For much of the regular season, any jumper James took out of the post was a face-up, one dribble rocker-step. But with defenses using zone principles in the middle, sucking in the instant the outer wall of the paint is hit, the bar for a high-percentage shot has fallen. James has become more of a traditional, back-down post player with a traditional repertoire.

Out of that comes the fallaway, a shot James, almost quite literally, never took during the regular season. Fizdale worked on it some with James, he said, but it was never drilled. The right-shoulder turn, fading jumper was simply a new vocabulary word for James’ post package. And now he’s not only taking them, but making them.

“When he’s in killer mode, you may see that fallaway come out,” Fizdale said. “He’s a natural at that shot. He’s watched Michael Jordan his entire life, and anyone growing up watching Jordan can shoot that shot. It’s just, can they make it?”

“He’ll see the double team coming,” Fizdale said. “He’ll beast and he’ll beast [back his defender down], and as soon as he sees that guy coming he’ll give one big hit to knock him off. And there is no way you are getting there to bother that shot.”

So, the playoffs come, the defenses change and James begins using a shot he’s rarely, if ever, used in games before. But whatever happened to the move he had been developing all season?

The Move that got the Hook

The running hook shot, styled after Magic Johnson, was supposed to be James’ signature shot, the move emulated on playgrounds for years to come, accompanied by the line, “Oh, you’re trying to do that LeBron James stuff.”

We haven’t seen a single one, not an attempt, from James in the postseason. There are two reasons for this. For one, the hook is a move designed to get a shot off, not to draw contact. It’s also a shot you take in the lane. But with defenses swarming the paint, James so rarely has space to get inside, when he does, he doesn’t want to let his opponent off the hook by going away from contact. If he absolutely, positively has to get a shot off, he’ll take the fallaway. But when he gets middle, he wants more.

The other reason is that the move just isn’t ready yet. Like a feature story that needs tuning up before publication or a proposal, of either the romantic or business variety, that has to wait for the appropriate time, the running hook has to simmer.

“I don’t know if it’s something he is totally comfortable with yet,” Fizdale said. “So I don’t think he’ll use it too much. Maybe someday he just do in the flow of the game because that’s what the game calls for. But now that its playoff time he’s going to pretty much go with what he’s really comfortable with.”

Such is the nature of the game. Put the work in at practice, experiment in games, and see no payoff as the project is shelved until a later date. But it was not for naught. The counter-move for the hook was the drop step, which we’ve seen put to use once, to perfect effect.

In the Finals

Even with the prospect of the Dallas Mavericks’ zone defense becoming a significant factor in this series, Spoelstra has repeatedly said that the HEAT are not going to change what they do. They’ve been facing zone-principled man-to-man defenses all postseason and they’ve stayed true to their attack.

That means more post-ups for James called from the sidelines. More disguised double teams coming at him every which way but from the rafters and more fallaway jumpers when the defense packs the paint. Fizdale speculated that Dallas may leave Shawn Marion alone with James just as the Bulls did with Deng. If they do, James’ post game may open up, and if that happens, along come the doubles, and the passes to open teammates, once again.

It won’t be as in-your-face as the twisting, turning adventures of Nowitzki on the block, but James in the post is happening, and happening efficiently. All you have to do is be willing to see it.

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