If the Eastern Conference Finals taught us anything about LeBron James, it’s that he can’t do it on his own. The ‘Cleveland Days’ never yielded a title, so presumably going back to them, as James alluded too after Game 5, is not a sound series-long strategy.
That’s why he looked to teammates Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh early in Game 7 of that series, and why the conscious decision to get them and others involved was central to his plan on Thursday night against the Spurs. His well-rounded effort produced a triple-double, which is an impressive statistical achievement, but means nothing when you lose. The other thing a triple-double can do is highlight the shortcomings of your teammates, and in this instance, James rebounded incredibly, the rest of the Heat did not. He distributed well too, while his teammates barely shook the assists column.
LeBron clearly wants this to be a team effort – he perhaps knows it has to be. But the choice to include his teammates should be more instinctive, and less blatant. The deliberate nature of his passing is good for short bursts, but is it sustainable? After all, James should know the success of his fellow Heat is based on confidence as much as it is skill. During the semi-finals, he seemed to doubt their abilities, which only further undermined their bravado. He was then compelled to make amends, by waking up Wade and getting Bosh to scream like a maniac, in what feels like it could be a vicious cycle.
This has revealed a vice in James’ Miami operation, beyond what he and his cohorts have been wearing to pressers, that is. But that’s for another day. What I’m saying is, going back to the Cleveland Days has a short term advantage because it’ll be impossible to churn out that level of attack for the entire Finals series, but purposefully distributing also makes it too easy for San Antonio. They’ll live with Miami jump shots, telegraphed or otherwise.
At any rate, I’m assuming James will continue to seek out his mates against the Spurs, but I also believe he’ll revert back to Cleveland mode when backed into a corner – like now. That’s when he forces the issue and when the defense can strike - and when his Big Three amalgamation looks slightly less than a genius decision, notwithstanding the rings they already have. But I digress.
Certainly there’s no easy way to stop a basketball player with LeBron's size, power and quick feet. Just ask Paul George. We also know this because of the many other EM-50 types before James, such as Dominque Wilkins, Larry Johnson, and obviously the van Harold Ramis commandeered in Stripes. Each were handfuls in their own right. Those respective firearms were overwhelming offensive talents with a multitude of options - precursors to the type of play we’re seeing from James. So how was their attack curtailed?
The defensive strategy to stop the charge of bullish vehicles like these varies from guarding them with your team’s best one-on-one defender, say Kawhi Leonard, to doubling. But when a player is trying to be Magic Johnson - which is apparently the Mr Hyde to LeBron’s Michael Jordan impression - and appeasing his teammates by consciously dishing, then he doesn’t navigate the game as it’s presented to him. That plays into the hands of a smart defense like San Antonio’s, who know their key to success is to flush James away from the middle and preferably coax him into offloading via reckless mid-air indecisions. Or, simply let him operate from the deep corner, as he did so often in the first game.
As James said after the initial contest, the Spurs are shrinking the floor by closing in on him quickly with an extra man. This is hardly surprising, but still so clever. Basketball is largely about spacing and manipulating that space, after all. James is bulkier and stronger than most, which helps when the walls are closing in. But he’s not so quick that the Spurs won’t be able to squeeze the areas around him, on most occasions. Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter’s presence behind Leonard will be crucial to deterring James from pursuing the rim as this series progresses.
From LeBron's perspective, time and pressure is all it takes. I think Red said that in The Shawshank Redemption. It holds true, even outside of jail house geology. Give James time to survey the court, and he’ll apply the requisite pressure on the defense to reach the cylinder before you can look up from your buffalo wings. He will try, I assume as early as the next game. So should things change for the Spurs?
Not really, but maybe the best approach is preventative. I really think the Chicago Bulls had the right idea when they harassed James early, picking him up at half court and forcing him into an immediate offense. James needs space to wind up and he needs time to read the defense. This is where the Bulls drew him into errors, by pressing and then helping. The Spurs could do the same, but most importantly, must push James away from the key as they have, nudging him sideways toward the open shooter. They can live with those shots – from James, or even the likes of Ray Allen – because they have the arsenal to counter that scoring.
On the premise that James will ultimately need to share the ball more often than not these Finals, he can be stopped. While a dynamic attack is the Heat’s best weapon over a grueling series, more so, say, than LeBron doing all the offensive work himself, it’s also the paradox of this Miami offense.