When LeBron Defended Melo in the 4th

Carmelo Anthony scored 42 points against the Miami HEAT Sunday afternoon, and he did it while making over half of his 27 field-goal attempts. He drove to the rim, he ran out in transition and he pulled up off the dribble for mid-range jumpers. Some were shots the HEAT would have been happy with Anthony taking, if they were playing out the percentages – 17 of his 24 attempts were outside the paint – and many were of an acceptable degree of difficulty.

For three quarters, with all of LeBron James, Shane Battier and Dwyane Wade guarding him, those shots fell. But in the fourth, when Miami outscored New York by five – winning by eight – Anthony went 2-for-7. In the fourth, the defensive responsibility was James’, though he was hardly alone.

As appreciation for James’ buffet of defensive talents has grown over the past couple of seasons, colored heavily by his two final-minute confinements of Derrick Rose last May, so too have expectations. James has taken on the role of shutdown cornerback, in the minds of many, expected to blanket any player regardless of position.

There is no but here. These are expectations derived from performance, not confirmation bias. Opponents attack James in 1.7 isolation possessions per game – you don’t throw at an All-Pro cover corner unless you have to – and he allows just below 24 percent shooting in those situations. Attack James one-on-one, and you’re willingly putting efficiency on the chopping block.

Rather, the issue with the expectations of James is that they are so focused on James. When James draws the assignment of an opponent’s offensive focal points, that opponent rarely attacks with blind, heroic fury. They don’t lose the ability to throw extra bodies at James to free the ball, and the Knicks made no exception.

Just as we remember the impossible shots made in the final minutes more than the misses, we most fondly remember the possessions where James looks like he is working the hardest. But the possessions that came before had just as much potential to result in points. Possessions when James needed a little help.

As he did in the following three fourth-quarter possessions:

Three possessions, three pick-and-rolls, one shot attempted. The first play is relatively simple, with Bosh jumping out quickly off Tyson Chandler’s screen before retreating into the paint, doing just enough to deter Anthony from turning the corner.

Then we get the same high pick-and-roll with Chandler at a higher speed. Bosh gets screened in the paint so he is already trailing the play, then his show on Anthony becomes a long lateral slide when Anthony attacks with James going over the top of the pick. Without Bosh, Anthony has a lane into the paint with only Wade there to provide help. With Bosh, Anthony takes an off-balance jumper outside the paint with James recovering to contest.

The third time Chandler sets the high screen, its Joel Anthony there, ready to hedge out on Carmelo. Joel is half-a-step behind off the screen, so Carmelo attacks only to find another Anthony attached to him at the hip. One jump pass and an offensive violation later, New York comes up empty.

Defensive pick-and-roll situations with Anthony weren’t restricted to the fourth quarter, of course. Bosh was there in the first as well, there when James was beaten off the dribble, which happens to him as it can to anyone else. But it’s important to show the aid James had in the fourth quarter, because it’s the fourth quarter we will remember him for.

For obvious reasons.

Of the seven shots Anthony took in the final period, five of them were with James on the court as the primary defender. One of those was the mid-range look with Bosh helping.

The other four? A trio of threes and another jumper with a foot on the arc. All off the dribble. One of them went in. As you can see in Anthony's fourth-quarter shot chart to to the right.

The first inclination is to say that Anthony, with his team playing catch-up during the latter stages of the quarter, was trying to preserve time and score in bunches, hence the tough jumpers. They certainly aren’t shots Anthony has been a stranger to in the past, having beaten the Chicago Bulls in the past week earning very similar looks. But watching James, it’s difficult to claim he wasn’t having a profound effect on Anthony’s approach, not just on the shots Anthony took but that Anthony wound up using 19 isolation possessions all to himself.

James checks all his boxes in these possessions, chasing Anthony off screens, denying him the ball on the perimeter, playing physically without fouling, staying in front of the dribble and contesting the shots as best he could. All while attending to his duties in the pick-and-roll.

It’s premier, All-NBA defense, the sort which offers little to pick apart. Just one elite athlete being tested by another, with the work being put in to solidify the process. Had each of those four possessions resulted in points on James, it would have simply been the odds going against him. That’s all a defense can do. Affect the percentages as best you can.

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