The LeBron James Clutch Process

Photo Credit: Garrett Ellwood

Remember this?

LeBron James catches the ball at the top of the arc. He sizes up the defense and goes away from an Anderson Varejao screen, beating his man off the dribble and darting into the lane. Help defenders from both sides of the paint suck into the middle of the paint to stifle the layup attempt. James has options, and he chooses quickly when he sees Donyell Marsahll sitting by himself in the corner, open for the most efficient shot in basketball.

It just so happens that this was Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2007, it was the final possession of the night and the Cavaliers were down two points to the Detroit Pistons. Marshall missed that shot, and James was submerged underneath a never-ending waterfall of flak. How could James pass the ball to a wide open teammate in the biggest moment of the game? Inconceivable.

We saw a similar lightning-rod moment last season when, in Utah just after the All-Star Break, James drew a second defender in a pick-and-roll and made a perfect pocket pass to Udonis Haslem –wide open, if you’re noticing a pattern – for the deciding shot of the game. Haslem missed and again James was placed on a petri dish of scorn and slid under a microscope. How could he not want to take the last shot? How could he think any other player would have a better chance to score than him? Inconceivable.

Funny how the tune changes when the shot goes in.

People want James to take the last shot because it makes thing easy. Succeed or fail, if James takes the shot, it’s on him and that offers a clean, concise narrative. A pass mucks things up a bit. Who do we give credit to if the shots goes in? Who do we blame if it doesn’t? A pass forces context into the equation, even though it should always be there.

James is wired differently. He is the rare player that doesn’t care what paragraphs will be written on deadline or what hashtag might be trending. He’s smart, he wants to make the best basketball play possible, and he’s so talented that he usually does. He knows the open shot is better than the shot in traffic, so it shouldn’t have surprised a single soul that with the HEAT up one on the Denver Nuggets in the final minute last night, James attracted the defense and found Norris Cole, waiting patiently on Corner Three Island.

For analytical purposes, whether the three fell or not doesn’t matter. There is no way to guarantee a possession – you simply influence the probabilities as best you can and roll the dice. The shot went in and the HEAT won, but the play was already validated while the ball was in the air. Cole, 2-for-11 in the game at the time and shooting poorly from distance in the regular season, worked tirelessly on his shot over the summer and has developed much more consistent arc in spot-up situations. This is a shot he can hit, and he did.

James simply trusted that he could.

We’ve already discussed James’ remarkable ability to approach each possession as its own little ball of clay, predetermining nothing as he makes calculations in real time after each dribble, each step and every time you blink. And a big part of why he might be the league’s most efficient player in the last five minutes of close games is that he approaches those last five minutes the same as the first 43.

In beating Denver, the HEAT used 35 spot-up possessions, per Synergy Sports. That means Miami had 35 opportunities in which they score well over a point-per-possession and are among the most efficient team in the league. And in his 42 minutes played, James was directly responsible for creating 17 of those. Nevermind hockey assists or possessions where his movement off the ball creating a passing lane for someone else, James made 17 passes right to a player open enough to either take the immediate shot or attack a defender desperately running for a closeout.

The last of those passes was the assist to Cole, but James never alters the process.

In the first quarter, he found Shane Battier for two wide open threes by reading and manipulating the defense. On the first one, James pushed the ball up in transition and upon being met by the entire Denver defense, took Andre Iguodala into the post. James went middle, as any efficient post player tries to do, and, well, he drew some defensive attention.

That’s a multiple-choice test that is impossible to fail unless you choose ‘D – Shoot over five players’, but that’s an option for a different human being. James finds Battier, Battier sinks the shot and it doesn’t matter. With the pass alone, James has already maximized the value of that possession.

In the second possession, James saves a possession in the final four seconds of the shot-clock. With Iguodala defending Chris Bosh, the team went to the mismatch in the post, but when the ball gets tipped out and James comes up with it with only seconds to spare, he makes a play you really have to see in a motion a couple of times to appreciate.

There is no wasted motion here. James picks up the ball, brings it above his head, freezes the defense by looking at Mike Miller in the strong-side corner and floats a soft, eminently catch-and-shootable pass to Battier, who was already on the move and had to set his feet as well. It’s not fair to say other players would have panicked in this situation, but a great many of them would have either taken the shoot soonafter gathering the ball, passed to Miller for a more contested look or fired a bullet to Battier that would have made his job a little more difficult.

Instead, James sets Battier up perfectly for a shot-clock beater.

After a brief rest in the second quarter, James puts the surgical gloves on and goes back to work in the post. While we already saw in the first quarter James turning his back to his defender, making a move, drawing the defense and kicking out, here we’ll see two slightly different sequences:

In the first video, James doesn’t even wait for the defense to react because the defense is already out of position, and it takes him half a second to see the hole before he whips a pass to Rashard Lewis – a pleasant early-season surprise shooting 14-of-26 from deep – in the corner. While James made a snap-decision on that pass, in the second clip he’s patient, waiting for the defense to give in to the temptation to help the post defender as he backs his way in.

Patience is a virtue, isn’t it?

Now that you know what to expect from the clips, watch them again. Notice how each pass hits its target right in the hands, almost encouraging the shooting motion?

James has a tendency to do that no matter how difficult the pass. Case in point:

General - “The target area is only two meters wide. It's a small thermal exhaust port, right below the main port.”

Wedge - “That's impossible! Even for a computer.”

It’s what James does in every quarter in every game now with all the shooters Miami is putting on the floor with him. And the process never changes.

Just take your eyes off the clock on this next clip – actually we’ll help and cut the clock out for you. Does this look like a typical last-minute possession to you? Is James playing it any differently?

James simply runs the high pick-and-roll with Bosh, Bosh dives to the rim and draws a few fleeting moments of help defense as he has done so expertly this season and James makes the read.

That’s why James’ PER is even better in the last five minutes than it is over the course of the entire season. When defenses get tighter and pressure rises, many players start playing a little differently. It might just be one contested shot or a safer pass than usual, but it’s different. James doesn’t change, and that’s why even though he is currently scoring an obscene 36 points per 36 minutes in clutch situations, he’s also averaging double-digits in assists, a mark that would have led the league over the past three seasons.

James has gaudy numbers everywhere, but that might be the most impressive of all.

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