The Path to 49

The Multi-Tool Approach of LeBron James

LeBron James
Photo Credit: Jesse D. Garrabrant

There's nothing LeBron James can’t do.

That didn’t become true as the Miami HEAT took a 3-1 series advantage over the Brooklyn Nets with a 102-96 victory. It’s probably been true since before anyone outside the team actually had the chance to notice it. And it’s going to be true whether or not everyone chooses to accept it. This is where we’re at with one of the best we’ve ever seen. Every feat imaginable is on the table. He’s the best superhero movie in a season overrun with them.

You used to be able to sit back a few more feet off the ball in an attempt to draw a jumper, but such passive coverage invites a calm, peaceful result.

James won’t always take the shot, but it’s no longer about whether he can make it or not. Sometimes he’ll search for better options, as San Antonio forced him to do a year ago, but the fallback option for a plus-shooter is still a plus-jumper. The shot can end a scheme.

You can play him straight up, as some chose to do Monday night in Brooklyn. You know you’re risking the drive. You know you’ll need help in the paint. Or you can take your lumps conceding the jumper. It probably doesn’t matter when James is at his best. If he wants to drive, he’s going to drive. And if you’re playing smaller lineups, there isn’t going to be much at the rim to stop him.

“We can’t allow a player like that to be in the paint all night,” Kevin Garnett said.

James scored 17 points on 12 drives, according to SportVU tracking data, as he made every shot he took off his own dribble-attacks. He was 3-for-3 with at least two players defending him at the rim, where he made 11 baskets. Including a couple tough, fading jumpers, he shot 6-of-7 with his primary defender within two feet of the shot.

Put the ball in his hands and you’re handing him the stuff that dreams are made of.

So you want to get the ball away from him? Sending an extra defender his way is only sending a message that someone, somewhere is open.

And if you keep the ball away from him entirely, he’ll find his way into scoring position anyways. For as much attention as his evolution in the post has rightfully garnered, James’ development as a screen-setter has been just as crucial to Miami’s success. The HEAT become reliant on other playmakers to take advantage of the defensive tilt when James shift into that mode, but Mario Chalmers was more than up to the task.

There’s not much more to saying about James’ outing. His 49 points tied a career-playoff high, and only two other players – Allen Iverson and Vince Carter – have put up as many points on 60-plus percent shooting to go with just one turnover in a playoff game since 1986. When the HEAT needed a go-ahead corner three created in the game's final moments, or some one-on-one stops against Joe Johnson, he did that, too. This was greatness, but you didn’t need anyone to tell you that.

“He was what was needed, on the road,” Erik Spoelstra said. That’s what makes him the best player in the game. Whatever is needed.”

Greatness almost wasn’t enough, however, and that’s something to keep in mind going forward. James can do everything, but he can’t do everything in every single game. Sure, the offense is going to go through him, and even though the HEAT were one Chris Bosh corner-three away from the Nets having a go-ahead possession in the final minute, the score being close despite James’ efficiency is hardly an indictment of the rest of Miami’s offense. Other players will have a major scoring impact in the playoffs. That much we know.

It’s on defense that James physically can’t be everywhere at once. There, you need five players, and the HEAT haven’t been playing together on that end as often as they’ll need to be.

“We’re trying to crack the code,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not an easy code. That’s why, for the aficionado out there, it’s a compelling matchup. We try to get to what we get to, but they’re a very smart team full of veteran players. You’re not going to rush them.”

There’s no shame in giving up an offensive efficiency of 115.7 to the Nets over the past two games. Brooklyn has moved the ball better against Miami than any prior playoff opponent not named San Antonio. Occasional bouts with isolation offense aside, the Nets can find good opportunities. And they’ve been incredible shot makers no matter the proximity of their defenders.

You know what it looks like. The Omega Swarm. It showed up for a few possessions scattered over the first two games in what were otherwise solid defensive performances. In those games, the Nets got to the rim 40 times. Since then, those attempts totaled 54, with a variety of drives resulting in high-percentage looks.

“We’re trying to shrink the floor as much as possible, because they got some shooters that got rolling,” Shane Battier said. “We’re trying to extend our defense, and we’re vulnerable at the cup.”

“You take away the three, then they’re going to be able to get to the paint a little bit more,” Dwyane Wade said. “You can’t take away it all, you can try to limit certain things.”

It’s good enough, for now, particularly in earning the necessary road win. But there is a small margin for error when you’re just good enough. James can do everything on offense, and there’s little doubt about the team’s ability to find shots for everyone, but the team will have to live up to its own standards on the side of the ball that’s about more than the vast abilities of a single player.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com, Synergy Sports and STATS LLC