One Night in Oakland

LeBron James
Photo Credit: Rocky Widner

Basketball can be a beautiful game. Basketball can be an ugly game. Basketball can make no sense.

We spend a lot of time discussing process and efficiency in this space. Keep doing the right things in the right ways and the long-term gains will far outweigh any immediate rewards that come with deviating from the plan. But the game can’t always adhere to science. Investing in doing things the right way is a sound business plan, it just doesn’t leave you invulnerable to all the wrong things. Forcing a ton of contested shots every game is great, but they can still go in and beat you.

Earlier this season in January, those contested shots went in for the Golden State Warriors. For Stephen Curry, in particular. And those shots were going in last night, too. Almost half of the jumpers the Warriors took that Synergy Sports classified as ‘Guarded’ went in. It didn’t matter what the HEAT did. They could play things just fine and still fall victim to a Curry stepback three.

What separates that shot from the one LeBron James hit over Andre Iguodala to win the game? They were both over long, athletic defenders. They were both off the dribble and created with advanced footwork. Neither was the result of the smooth, rhythmic offensive basketball that makes the die-hard fans swoon.

James just happened to hit one of his tough jumpers right before time expired.

Does it make sense that James made that shot less than a minute after hitting a similar pullup three over Klay Thompson? Did it make sense when Curry was firing from the hip on his way to eight threes in Miami? It never really does. As Erik Spoelstra often says, that’s just players showing their greatness – some guys can just tap into it more often than others. It doesn’t make these good shots in the sense that you want James or Curry taking them throughout a game, but they’re great moments. Beautiful. Ugly. Logical or not. Games can be won or lost on great moments that have little to no bearing on the past or future.

But the better your process, the fewer great moments you’ll need to win.

While Curry spent most of the night as the dribbler attacking out of pick-and-roll actions, giving the HEAT chances to bring two to the ball and pressure the passing lanes, James often didn’t have to take a single dribble to find a shot. Five years ago, or even in his first season in Miami, James would have been in the same position as Curry. Using endless high pick-and-rolls to manufacture offense.

Now Spoelstra can play James as a power forward both in title and practice. Instead of having James pound the air out of the ball thirty feet from the rim looking for airspace, James improvises without the ball. If nothing comes out of a screen-roll with Bosh, James can pause, pass to Ray Allen and go set a screen himself. Zero dribbles later, he can get himelf a layup.

The Warriors don’t cover this action particularly well, but the HEAT don’t know that that’s going to happen ahead of time. They’re running through the read-and-react process that approximates so much of their offensive scheme.

So while Curry was attacking off the dribble throughout the fourth quarter – getting a three-minute rest along the way – James was able to play the entire period with a more measured approach. Set picks. Draw the switch (the Warriors were happy to switch Klay Thompson onto James even when Iguodala was the primary defender). Catch the ball at 18 feet instead of 28. Let the offense work for you. For the first ten minutes of the quarter, James set more than a half-dozen screens.

Sometimes the actions worked, creating something for James or for someone else. Sometimes it didn’t work. But the demand wasn’t on James to carry the offense. He was just a part of it. Mario Chalmers is trusted to work a two-man game with Bosh if James doesn’t have a good look. Allen is trusted to find the high-value pass. Michael Beasley gets touches down the stretch despite his irregular minutes over the past two months. With no Dwyane Wade, the HEAT don’t become the 48-Minute LeBron James Show.

By the time the ball does need to find James, he’s not worn out. We don’t know if the much younger Curry was tired at the end of the game, but all those pick-and-rolls take a toll on an NBA career. Eventually, you start to feel it.

Miami needed some great moments from James -- along with not only 36 points but 26 attempted shots -- in order to win, but it didn’t require an entire fourth quarter of them. Whether or not the process made James’ last-minute threes any more likely to go in, it’s impossible for us to know. We just know that when James was facing up Iguodala as the clock was winding down, he wasn’t tempting fate by trying to make the same play for the sixth or seventh time.

Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense why you won or lost a basketball game. But there’s always a process that put you in position to win or lose on a handful of wonderful, sickening, illogical seconds.