Pacers Game 1: LeBron at Power Forward

During Saturday’s press conference to award LeBron James the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, Erik Spoelstra spoke of how James gets to the AmericanAirlines Arena almost four hours before game time, Spoelstra recounting his daily ritual of poking his head in the weight room, seeing James and saying, “Hey, One-Through-Five, what’s up?”

It’s a well-earned name for James, who it seems has defended or been defended by just about every player at every position in the league. The magic number in Miami’s Game 1 victory over the Indiana Pacers, however, was simply four. As in, playing James at power forward.

James played the four-spot for 20 minutes, mostly in the second half, Sunday afternoon, and in that time the HEAT outscored the Pacers by 15 points. Miami’s most-used lineup – James, Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Joel Anthony – scored 20 points in just 7 minutes, allowing 11. On one end, James defended David West (2-for-7 in the second half), and on the other, Indiana had to constantly adjust its defense as James ran a constant stream of pick-and-rolls at Roy Hibbert.

While it was a look that Erik Spoelstra would have used in any case – James at power forward lineups outscored Indiana by 24 in the regular season – a second-quarter injury to Chris Bosh (lower abdominal strain) forced a few changes. Instead of using James and the floor-spacing Bosh in pick-and-rolls to move Hibbert around, James would be playing next to Anthony and Ronny Turiaf.

“That was on the fly; every huddle,” Erik Spoelstra said. “It changes the dynamic if we don’t have players with that type of ability to play different positions, and we’ve been doing that all year.”

To their credit, both Anthony and Turiaf, neither of whom will be taking many 15-foot jumpers in Miami’s offense, made it as seamless a transition as possible.

“Regardless of what the lineup is, we have to make it work, whether it’s LeBron at the four, LeBron at the three, LeBron at the two, LeBron at the one,” Anthony said. “What I think is good is we have versatility. We have someone like Bron that can pretty much one-through-five. Regardless of what position he’s in, everyone else is able to adjust to that and make those lineups work.

“I’m still playing the five, so it works fine with me.”

The pair of Miami centers, the likely choices to replace Bosh in the starting lineup should he miss future games, made things work mostly because they didn’t hesitate. While Bosh and Udonis Haslem each had some trouble in the first half when collecting the ball in the paint and using a power dribble, allowing Hibbert to rotate over and alter the shot, both Anthony and Turiaf (13 points, 6-of-18 combined shooting) make quick decisions, either going at the rim immediately or looking for a quick pass.

“It’s just a matter of just reacting,” Turiaf said. “You have a split-second to make a decision and you just have to go with it. I know myself, when I first got there, I was looking for the corner man [for a pass] more often than not and I was not putting pressure on the help-side defender so I was just trying to be a little bit aggressive.”

Catching the ball and finishing in one fluid motion has been a point of emphasis throughout Anthony’s collegiate and professional career, and it’s something he has improved at significantly in the past year, but one tool Spoelstra has always been able to count on is Anthony’s screen setting, often making a point to mention that Anthony sets the best picks on the team. In the fourth quarter, with James at the four, Anthony’s screens made all the difference, first in transition, and then in the half-court, giving us a prolonged glimpse at a possession type we’ll see quite a bit of in this series.

Big picture, this might be a small point, but in playing James at the four and forcing Frank Vogel to decide whether to take out Hibbert or West and match small for well, Spoelstra ensures that he’ll at least create a cross matching scenario for the Pacers. If Vogel leaves his big men in, he’s still not going to want either of them defending James, so as James defends West on one end, it’s up to Danny Granger or Paul George to find James on the other.

So, rather than George being near James at the point of the turnover in the possession shown above, and possibly being able to slow James down, George has to sprint ahead of the action from the opposite side of the court and find a spot where he can get in front of James. He does so effectively, communicating with his defense to cover Wade in the weakside corner, but he still has to stop and wait for James as he barrels down the court. All it takes is an Anthony screen and George is left trying to go from a dead stop to fighting through a pick.

“When we’re out in transition and really pushing the pace after misses and makes, we like to think we add some confusion to the mix,” Battier said. “When we play slow, it’s easy to matchup against anyone in this league.”

With West, being pulled out of the paint by Battier, not wanting to leave the corner shooter, James gets Hibbert one-on-one with a full head of steam. And Hibbert picks up his fifth foul.

In the half-court, because Hibbert didn’t want to chase Anthony, who isn’t a threat to catch and attack off the dribble, the HEAT were able to consistently earn a similar opportunity.

Note the floor spacing before anything else. Spoelstra always has at least two shooters on the floor when James plays the four, and here Battier and Mike Miller keep their men, including West, out of the paint, while Wade is free to roam and cut to the rim should the defense collapse on James.

Knowing that Hibbert isn’t going to chase Anthony, James waits for the screens higher up the floor than he usually would. As a result, if Anthony is able to free him, James turns the corner with 10 feet of space between him and Hibbert. And if there’s one thing you never want to be as a defender, it’s waiting flat-footed for LeBron James as he gains momentum, dribbling right at you.

Because Hibbert is concerned with keeping James out of the paint, he doesn’t step up and commit to stopping the dribble, in effect applying no pressure. James has control of the situation. On these possessions, he calmly drops in a pair of jumpers.

A possession later, West left Battier on the wing to contest an identical James attempt. James took that shot because he had just hit two in a row, but Battier was open, and it was a perfect illustration of how the high pick-and-roll with James at the four puts a ton of pressure on Indiana’s bigs to cover ground.

Soon after, James again drew Hibbert on the pick-and-roll with Anthony, and this time he drove, missing a layup he has consistently made all year. The possession after that, he misses a 12-foot floater. Another shot he makes.

James averaged 4.1 pick-and-rolls used during the regular season, and he used 12 against the Pacers, drawing one foul and shooting 3-of-9, all efficient opportunities for him, when playing the four. There is a danger to this as well, as its easy for the rest of the offense to fall into ball watching when using so many pick-and-rolls, but when playoff games grind to a halt, as they tend to do with the number of free-throws Miami is sure to take, simple pick-and-rolls can be the way to go. You know that eventually Wade is going to catch the defense ball-watching, too, and James is going to find him under the rim.

Everything we’ve discussed to this point is meaningless – and not being discussed, because none of it has happened – if the defense can’t sustain the type of pressure Spoelstra wants. And that’s where James’ brilliance really shows itself. Running one high pick-and-roll after another can be a tiring affair, but James also took West largely out of the game, fronting and aggressively denying West the ball in the post. Of the seven shots West took in the second half, he made two, and only one was within eight feet of the rim.

That shot happened to be a putback of an Indiana miss, but the Pacers only had three offensive rebounds in the second half despite 26 misses (29.7 percent team shooting after the break) as the HEAT gave its swarming defense the finishes it deserved. James, for his part, had nine of his 15 rebounds in the second half.

“I made a conscious effort in the second half to rebound the ball even more,” James said. “I understand that their team is very big in the interior with Hibbert and West, and Tyler Hansbrough and [Lou] Amundson. Those guys do a good job of rebounding the ball, I wanted to try to do better job, or the best I could, on the glass and try to help our team rebound.”

The question now is what Miami does if Bosh starts missing games. There’s little doubt that James will continue to at least play 20 minutes, if not more, at power forward every night, but with those lineups being so effective, is it worth starting James at that spot as well? There’s an argument to be made for the yes and another to be made for the no, but that’s a question for another day.

Statistical support for this article provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports.