The Hitch and LeBron's Iconic Shot
Up two, with about 30 seconds to play in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the Miami HEAT are about to run a pick-and-roll with their point guard – only the point guard doesn’t have the ball in his hands. Years spent building the habits of versatility come down to Mario Chalmers setting a ball screen and Tony Parker hedging a pick-and-roll. Parker jumps out on the ball just long enough for Kawhi Leonard to fight his way past the screen and cut off the drive in the paint.
As it had been for all of this near-mythic series, the cushion was there for LeBron James. The jumper was there for the taking, and James took it. If he missed the and HEAT lost, people would ignore years and years of data and exclaim that James can’t get it done at the end of games. If he made it and the HEAT won, people would ignore years and years of data and exclaim that James had finally proven himself to be a closer. It’s remarkably unfair – illogical, even – but these are the moments that history remembers, and as the shot went in and the HEAT took a two-possession lead, James took hold of history.
This should be the iconic LeBron James shot. A dribble jumper to secure bottle-popping rights. A move any kid can replicate in his driveway. Dribble right. Stop. Pop. Title. There is elegance in simplicity, a certain grace in jumpers that affects the way we think about players. If history is any indication, this is the shot we should think about when we think about LeBron James.
But it wasn’t perfect. Just before shooting, James collects himself and adjusts his right foot. If he’s going to take the shot, he’s going to take it on balance. If he doesn’t make that slight correction, maybe the shot looks tougher. Maybe James has to fade away a little more, maybe he kicks his right leg out a little more. Man, remember when James hit that tough-as-heck shot against the San Antonio Spurs for the title? Instead, James is exacting – on balance for a simple, everyday shot under soul-crushing pressure.
And the Spurs let him have it.
This is who LeBron is. Split-second analyst. The man who sees the move three moves before it’s made. If the defense gives him a passing lane, he makes the pass. If the paint is open he invades the paint. He sees things with the ball in his hands as he stands on the floor that we can’t see with a camera angle from 30 rows up. He so often makes the right basketball plays in the face of some of the most complex defensive systems – designed specifically to stop him – the league has ever seen. He isn’t perfect, but even when he is James’ play is often viewed as something less-than-compelling.
This isn’t his fault. It’s ours. Game 6 will be seen as the evening when James lost his headband, decided he had had enough of the Spurs shape shifting defensive schemes and decided he was getting to the rim no matter the cost. As our vernacular goes, James imposed his will on the game – nevermind that the Spurs were clogging the paint less and less after James found one open teammate after another in the first half. That was the James everyone wanted to see – attack, attack, attack.
In Game 7, James and Dwyane Wade took what the defense gave them and gave whatever they had left. We readily, and accurately, acknowledge that the two-point dribble jumper is the least efficient shot in the game. The Spurs know this, and that’s why they scrambled to get to the paint, not to the ball, when James or Wade was involved. The HEAT had worked all season to avoid taking this shot, and all series they tried to work around San Antonio’s coverage. In some games it worked wonderfully, as James worked off-the-ball as a screener in Game 2 or Wade worked his floater in Game 4, but the Spurs never wavered. Right down to the crucial possessions of the deciding game, James and Wade were given the jumper.
So, James took what was offered on a silver platter. Whether it was because of a cushion:
Or because the Spurs expected James to be so unselfish that they closed out on the swing pass, to Battier, instead of to James in the corner.
If James misses a few more of the 20 jumpers he took, the HEAT lose and he is once again criticized for not being aggressive enough. A season spent in the shine of ball movement and transition sunk because of half-court hero ball. But this was the best player in basketball, in the midst of the best shooting year of his career, reading the game and trusting his habits.
“I just told myself . . . don't abandon what you've done all year,” James said. “Don't abandon now because they're going under. Don't force the paint. If it's there, take it. If not, take the jumper. And I think the last I did a good job in Game 4. Didn't make as many shots I would like to from the outside in Game 5, but I kept on getting into the rhythm of it.
“Just saying everything you've worked on, the repetition, the practices, the off season training, no matter how big the stakes are, no matter what's on the line, just go with it. And I was able to do that.”
The math doesn’t support all the shots James took in Game 7, but that’s only the context of an entire season. Game-to-game, percentages matter far less. Danny Green can be one of the best shooters you’ve ever seen for five games, but by the seventh game he’s shooting 1-of-12. Wade can struggle with his shot throughout the playoffs, but for two games in the NBA Finals he can find his range and get the HEAT halfway to a title. Shane Battier can slump so badly he’s almost removed entirely from the rotation until hitting six threes in a deciding game. Mario Chalmers can bank in a straight-on three just before the buzzer. Tim Duncan can miss a contested layup and a tip-in attempt in the final minute.
So many things could have been different, but history tends not to remember those things. History will remember, abstractly, a fantastic series between the Spurs and the HEAT, but it will remember exactly what shots James made.
It’s only fitting that the shot that clinched the title might not be your idea of modern art. The clip will be replayed a decade from now, and every time James will take that half-beat pause to readjust his foot as Leonard offers just enough space. Even taking the final shot, James was taking what the defense gave him and making it look simple.
That’s who LeBron James is. It’s up to us – today, tomorrow, next month, in a year or five – to figure out how to appreciate him.