The Heat face the Thunder on Thursday night in a preview of the likely NBA Finals rematch.
Just like in 1997, the Jazz failed and Jordan walked off as the NBA Finals MVP.
LeBron James was the 2012 NBA Finals MVP, and the Thunder would be wise to hatch more than a half-decent plan for slowing James down lest he pull a Jordan—which he has been doing a lot of lately—and pocket the 2013 NBA Finals MVP also.
James posted 29 points, nine assists and eight rebounds as Miami beat Oklahoma City on Christmas, so this will be the Thunder’s last chance to get a better handle on James before they possibly line up against each other in June when it really counts.
The problem is, James has been producing at a historic level of efficiency lately.
That has happened, according to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, because James’ teammates feel emboldened with that 2012 NBA title in the bag. The other Heat players are more confident about taking and making the shots James gives them on time and in the right place—and because James has always been a pass-first guy, he has moved into an even greater comfort zone with teammates playing the way he wants to play.
“There’s a freedom of mind when you play that way,” Spoelstra said.
Spoelstra referred to James as a “very intellectual basketball player,” which is in keeping with his fundamental desire to make the right basketball play. He has gotten in trouble for passing too much earlier in his career, but his desire to pass works a lot better with guys confident about shooting—no matter if it means taking a shot away from the mighty LeBron James.
“They have some great pieces around him, too,” Kobe Bryant said. “That makes it tough to lock in on him. He’s a fantastic passer. With his size, he can look over the defense like Magic (Johnson) could.”
So if you work off this premise, the Thunder should do whatever they can not necessarily to take James off his spots or out of his pet plays, but to avoid double-teaming too aggressively and opening up the spots and plays where James’ teammates are most comfortable.
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni went into his game in Miami on Sunday with a three-pronged plan to defend James.
1. Keep him out of the lane, where he is almost automatic as a locomotive finisher. (That’s the starting point, even though Bryant praised James’ improved face-up shot, saying: “At his size, I think it’s important that he’s added to his game the ability to square up and shoot. He seems to have a lot of confidence in his jumper, which opens up the rest of the game for him.”)
2. Don’t foul him, which is the basic way most NBA coaches approach defending most NBA superstars whom you must concede will invariably make their share of field-goal attempts anyway. One of the very few statistical decreases in James’ game this season is free-throw makes—down 1.2 per game—so you don’t want to let him get that, too.
3. Don’t drop off James’ three-point shooting teammates because you’re so focused on defending him.
That third one is the one to watch.
Even though Oklahoma City lost that Christmas game in Miami, the Thunder had a great chance to steal it on the road in large part because the Heat shot just 28.6 percent on three-pointers (8-of-28).
If James’ greatest comfort zone is being able to dish authoritatively for his teammates to shoot–without having any second thoughts—then one way to rattle him might be to make him wonder if he should be taking more of those shots himself.
The key word there is “might.”
D’Antoni came away from the Lakers’ loss Sunday with this conclusion about LeBron:
“He really has no weaknesses.”
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.