LeBron's One-Through-Five Night in L.A.

LeBron James
Photo Credit: Andrew D. Bernstein

In a vacuum, the Miami HEAT’s 116-112 win over the Los Angeles Clippers was neither their best nor their most complete game of the season. They weren’t as consistently sharp on the defensive end as they would like to be, they gave up a season-high 21 offensive rebounds and the offense stagnated down the stretch after a beautiful first half of ball movement. Yet in the context of the team’s season to date, the positive trends more than outweighed the blemishes of the evening.

The flaws were there, but they were also beside the point against the Clippers. Every team has a realm of normalcy in which all of the good, bad, fantastic and downright ugly things they tend to do fall. If a team has a long history of cleaning up missed box-outs, slow rotations and suction-cup hands on the perimeter, it’s easy to write those things off during the regular season. So into the same category goes all the reality-bending dunks from the win that you’ve probably already seen the highlights from. Those plays are thrilling, but that’s what the HEAT do. They create art out of chaos with a manic precision.

What we hadn’t seen for much of the first half of the regular season was the HEAT being truly competitive on the defensive end. It simply hadn’t happened enough for us to call it normal, but over the past week it’s been just that. Against the Spurs, the HEAT looked like a different team that even a few days prior. Against the Thunder, believe it or not, the half-court defense was even better despite all sorts of shots going in for Oklahoma City. They kept the Detroit Pistons taking the shots they wanted them to take, and for most of the contest against the Clippers they did the same.

It isn’t something we can truly measure. Just pointing at a game’s defensive efficiency rating and saying, ‘That was a good defensive game there, buddy’ doesn’t tell us how things actually played out. But as abstract as it sounds, you can sense it. You can hear it when LeBron James offers what otherwise might seem like a run-of-the-mill player quote:

“We wanted this first one to start off the trip the right way.”

You can see the competitiveness when James is almost beating the pass to the man on closeouts.

It’s there when seemingly easy Clippers passes get tipped and turn into fast-breaks. It’s there when players blitz the ballhandler in a pick-and-roll then sprint back into the lane to box-out or make another rotation. You can see it in a layup swatted so strongly against the backboard that it becomes an outlet pass.

James is the subject here because he’s the one that changes everything. While Chris Bosh, having a fantastic and versatile defensive season, is in the discussion it’s James who can do literally anything you ask of him when it comes to stopping an orange ball from going through an orange hoop. The offensive burden that James shoulders is such that it’s far too much to ask him to be a ball of defensive energy for every single possession. That’s not feasible. But when he does become a one-man photon cannon, that’s when the HEAT’s defense wins titles. Not just because they become great, but they become different. Capable of an entirely different brand of defense than what is currently en-vogue. [He] displayed his entire arsenal defensively tonight,” Erik Spoelstra said.

Not counting help rotations, James defended six Clippers players for full possessions Wednesday night – and Doc Rivers only played seven guys for more than 10 minutes with both Chris Paul and J.J. Redick sitting out. He started out on the center, DeAndre Jordan. He transitioned back-and-forth between Jordan and the power forward, Blake Griffin. Then there were long stretches on the small forward shooters, Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley. The shooting guard, Jamal Crawford, was defended by James. And the point guard, Darren Collison, too.

At one point or another we’ve all probably been guilty of taking James’ versatility for granted, but defending five positions doesn’t just mean defending isolations and post-ups against some small, some big and some mid-sized opponents. It means knowing every inch of the HEAT’s defensive scheme – what the coverage looks like from the weak-side corner to the strong-side block, as the man on the ball in the pick-and-roll to the man on the screen.

From blitz-and-recover…

To backline help…

It’s one thing to watch Shane Battier, who has long since offered himself up to the basketball gods, step in and sacrifice his body in the paint. As much as any one play can, James doing the same would seem to signal something different.

“The number one thing we talked about was having emotional stability,” Spoelstra said. “Doing it together on the road and staying the course. We gave up virtually everything you can’t give up, just in terms of the volleyball plays, the second-chance opportunities, the block-outs or lack of block-outs, lack of second efforts on those and fouling too much.

“But we found a way. In the second half we made enough plays, and that’s what it’s about on the road, ultimately.”

Playoff games ask for the same. However imperfect you are, as the HEAT were against the Clippers, the teams that get to keep playing are the ones that find the way to make enough plays. Behind James, the HEAT are trying do to that right now. Maybe it will last for the rest of the regular season. Maybe not. But it’s there right now, and if the HEAT have taught us anything over the past four seasons it’s that as long as these types of efforts keep showing up during the 82-game marathon, through both wins and losses, it’ll show up during the push for 16 wins.