Defensive Memories: LeBron on Rose

We are selective historians.

They aren’t necessarily conscious decisions, but by whatever inclination of our nature, we categorize particular plays in our memories and those become the possessions that define games, players and eras.

With shots, we remember who took the shot, how he took it and who he hit it over. There are the steals at the end of games which become just as much the fault of the passer as the result of effort on the part of the defender. Yet iconic steals almost always lead to iconic scores. Some blocked shots get immortalized, as do some assists, particularly if they display the unselfishness of a star player in a big moment.

But when we chisel most defensive plays worthy of recognition into our grey matter, they are largely as performances, not unique instances. Individual players are credited with stopping a team’s leading scorer in a playoff series, but the moments where a miss is forced tend to exist outside of the mythology, surfacing primarily in the segment of a video package that tells the story of a team or player’s struggle.

The why for this cultural peculiarity is close to the discussion between blocking a shot, tipping it to yourself and feeding a teammate in the open floor versus swatting the ball out of bounds. One is less efficient yet feeds our hunger for the dominant flourish, the embarrassment of one gladiator by another.

Outside of the block or the steal – far from the best measures of defensive excellence – individual defense does not satiate as time passes and we shift from reaction to remembrance. Because the man with the ball has the advantage over the man in a defensive stance, glamorizing the stop would be celebrating surviving over thriving.

LeBron James has had three such stops in the 2011 playoffs, each an example of near-defensive perfection on a grand stage, each an act of redemption, each worth remembering.

The first came in Game 4 against the Boston Celtics. With the game tied in the fourth quarter, James had faced up Paul Pierce from the right wing and dribbled towards the paint only to lose his handle as he paused to back Pierce down. Then it was Pierce’s turn to attack with the chance to tie the series at two games apiece.

Then, James slid with Pierce as the attacker drove left, James forcing him into a fading jumper that rolled off the front of the rim.

Already, memory of that possession has begun to fade amid James’ offensive exuberance late in that game, where he proved his idological clutchness against one of his greatest foes.

The next two plays occurred at the end of regulation in Game 4 against the Chicago Bulls, and these are still fresh. Again, each time James had to defend, he was preventing his opponent from taking advantage of one of his mistakes. With a minute to play and the Miami HEAT up one, James elected to gamble on an inbounds pass and whiffed, allowing Derrick Rose a clear path to the rim, where he got fouled. A free throw tied the game. Later, with a chance to put Miami ahead with the shot-clock about to turn off, James committed an offensive foul at the elbow.

Chicago’s response on the possession after each misstep was to put the ball in Rose’s hands, in isolation, against James. The results were as follows, with slow-motion replays so you can focus on James’ footwork:

The first stop is the most fundamentally sound, as James sits in his stance the entire time, shuffling his feet in step with Rose’s hard jabs and step-backs. Rather than lunge with his front foot and allow his body to recover, James propels himself off his back foot, landing with his muscles coiled for another reactionary strike. And when he contests the shot, his hand goes in Rose’s face and his body goes to the side to avoid a foul.

Note that on each of these possessions, James does not pull up his shorts or slap the floor, nor does he over-pressure Rose beyond the three-point line. No show, no gamble, no greed. He waits and reacts.

With eight seconds left, James almost tangles himself up on Rose’s second crossover. Here it’s not fundamentals as it purely his athletic ability, in combination with his size – mentioned by Rose after the game – that allows him to collect himself and leap after Rose’s shot. Again without fouling.

These plays don’t have to define the storyline and they don’t have to be highlights. They don’t even have to represent the duel between one player and another. That rhetoric will sort itself out. All these plays are, are moments of extraordinary defense that deserve our thoughts as time goes on.

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