What Puts LeBron James' Playmaking In League Of Its Own
A forward on paper, James is one of the most talented primary playmakers in the league. His court vision rivals that of anyone's and his thirst for facilitating isn't something he often ignores. It's just the contrary.
Sometimes he passes too much, almost to a fault. There are some who would have him shoot more and defer less. In certain cases, I'm one of them. Mostly though, I, along with everyone else who appreciates a prolific dime-dropper, can appreciate the poise and precision behind his on-ball decision making.
Only three players in NBA history have ever averaged at least 25 points and six assists on 50 percent or better shooting from the field through 10 or more playoff games, and James is one of them. Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, they're the other two.
James is currently blanketing such postseason marks for the second time in his career. He's already posted one triple-double in the NBA Finals—the third finals triple-double of his NBA tenure—and his unique, frequently complex passing abilities haven't failed to impress.
Something about his acute deferments leave us enamored. His propensity for passing differs from everyone else. Not in the sense that it's always better, though it usually is. Rather, a trademark of sorts that renders him unique.
Few players have a license to dell out elongated assists. Too often they result in a turnover. If not done perfectly, they can be detrimental. For LeBron James, they're a heralded staple.
Journey on back to Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals and you'll see what I'm talking about.
Inside 10 seconds to play in the third quarter, James dribbles the ball up the court. Once he crossed over the timeline, he's flanked by the Indiana Pacers' D.J. Augustin and Sam Young:
Notice all the empty space Indiana leaves between James and the basket. That's hardly indicative of the Pacers' defense.
James, just like any star would, elects to take advantage of the open lane and attacks the basket:
All eyes are on him when he begins to go at Young. They have to be, otherwise James will have provided a great snapshot for his next poster.
Once inside the paint is where things get hairy:
Four Pacers meet James, with a fifth in Augustin on the way. Because The King is used to quadruple teams, he begins to elevate anyway:
James is heavily contested by Roy Hibbert and Orlando Johnson, so much so that you can only see one of them in this frame.
As he approaches the climax of his jump, it becomes clear he won't be attempting a shot. The ball rests in his right hand and is positioned adjacent to the basket.
You'll come to find (spoiler alert) that James prefers to throw these bullets with two hands. He has more control that way. Here he has no choice but to fire it toward Mike Miller using one.
Since there's so much space between Miller and the Pacers' defense, all that matters is James clearing Indiana's outstretched hands, which he does:
By the time Miller catches the ball and initiates his shooting motion, Hibbert is the closest Pacer to him. He has no chance of closing him out and the bouncy-haired sharpshooter drills a trey at the buzzer:
James creates so much space for his teammates that he's able to zip the ball across the court without having to worry.
Staying with the Eastern Conference Finals, he does something similar in Game 6.
Once again James has the ball beyond the three-point arc. This time he has one of the best young perimeter defenders in the game defending him in Paul George:
There are plenty of things we need to keep our eyes on here.
First, George is smart enough to leave ample recovery room between him and James, all but eliminating the possibility of him attacking without some sort of screen. Second, Dwyane Wade makes it look like he's going to set said screen. Third, Chris Bosh is staring intently at the play as it develops.
Wade ultimately fakes the screen and begins to head toward the right corner:
Lance Stephenson was initially sold by Wade beelining for James and has rotated over for a switch that becomes unnecessary. Now James has the attention of both George and Stephenson.
Bosh, meanwhile, scurries on over to James in order to set the pick Wade didn't:
Finally aware of what is going on, Stephenson has retreated back toward Wade. George is still on James as well. David West, however, elects not to pursue Bosh so that he may protect against a pass to Wade—who Stephenson has not yet caught up with or a sudden burst of explosion from James coming off the inevitable screen. Hibbert does the same. He begins to back off Joel Anthony because 1) he's Joel Anthony and 2) he wants to protect the rim.
George is picked off by Bosh, who immediately rolls back toward West to set another screen. James has been freed, but just for a moment, hence Bosh's ensuing screen.
Stephenson has decided not to follow Wade all the way into the corner. He's not a deep-ball threat after all, so his services are needed more inside the arc.
Only Bosh doesn't set a screen. He veers off toward the weak side:
What this does is force the Pacers to converge on James. There isn't some elaborate scheme being played out. He's simply attacking the rim again and their first inclination in the latter 10 seconds of the shot clock is to protect themselves against anything he's doing.
Recognizing that he has all eyes on him, James sends a pass streaking across the right side and into Wade's hands:
Pay special attention to the two-hand follow through, which allows him to generate additional speed without sacrificing anything in precision.
The ball having left James' hands, there is still a lot going on. George Hill, Stephenson, West and George have enveloped James while Hibbert remains near the rim.
Realizing the ball is ripping through the air and on it's way to Wade, the Pacers vamoose toward what they hope is a recovery:
West slides off James and onto Bosh to protect against the offensive rebound, Hill stays back to guard against a potential fast break and Stephenson sprints toward Wade.
Knowing that Stephenson and Hibbert are the ones who will attempt to close out Wade, George gets into the paint, preparing to rebound.
Hibbert, the closest Pacer to Wade prior to James' pass, is unable to contest the shot. Anthony uses his body to prevent him from doing so, thus ensuring Wade is given enough space to get the shot off.
Not known for this three-point prowess, Wade drains a strong-side three.
James is so creative when coming off screens and his supporting cast is so calculated in their off-ball movements that plays like these appear effortless.
This all started because James and Wade were able to sell Stephenson on a screen in the beginning. Once Bosh came and set the actual pick, James didn't angle off to the right or left—he went straight for the basket.
Whenever he slashes toward the rim or gets inside the paint with the ball in his hands, defenses are going to react. More often than not, they're going to overreact, just as the Pacers did here.
To Indiana's credit, the quadruple team did a nice job of clouding James' vision, but he already knows where Wade is. All that was left to do was clear Stephenson's head. And so he did.
Game 2 of the NBA Finals saw more of the same.
Early in the fourth quarter, James rejected the San Antonio Spurs' Tiago Splitter. You might remember the block in question, the one that was heard, seen and relived around the world. That one.
After emphatically staring off into oblivion in celebration of his swat, James came up the court trailing the play:
This time he doesn't call for the ball behind the three-point line, instead opting to set a screen for Mario Chalmers:
Kawhi Leonard stays back because he's awesome. He sees that Parker isn't going to fight over the pick cleanly and logic would dictate that he switch onto Chalmers.
The only problem is that Parker doesn't switch onto James:
Double-teaming Chalmers isn't what Gregg Popovich had in mind. It left James by his lonesome, meaning the fun begins now.
Miller moves out from the corner to make room for Ray Allen, while Danny Green and Splitter shift their focus to a wide-open James.
Chalmers isn't blind, so he correctly defers to The King:
By this time, both Miller and Allen have set up where they need to be. Splitter has rotated over to James and Green shifts inward to protect the basket. Parker and Leonard are still standing, presumably befuddled, by Chalmers—leaving Wade unattended.
James looks his way, but doesn't give him the ball. He instead whips a cross-court strong-side one toward Allen in the right corner:
It's important to note that James had two easier options. He could have hit the wide-open Wade or even gone to Miller, who was much closer than Allen.
Why didn't he? Because contrary to the play we just broke down from Game 6, Wade isn't often going to hoist up threes or jump shots in general. He would have driven toward the rim, in which case Splitter would have had time to impede his path and Green would have been there to provide a double-team.
Sending the rock Miller's way would have also been more dangerous. Leonard had finally begun to recover and was streaking down the middle. Being the savvy defender that he is, chances are he would have intercepted that pass.
So James astutely chooses Allen while looking the other way to sell it. Again, pay special attention to his hands, both of which are exaggerating the follow through, increasing velocity and accuracy.
Once Allen catches the ball, he is all alone:
Neal had meandered his way toward the free-throw line to help Splitter with James, and so had Leonard. Green is still underneath the basket and even Parker began to traipse his way in James' direction.
Miller is also left unguarded, affording Allen the luxury of making an extra pass. Jesus Shuttlesworth doesn't pass up open corner threes though, and neither does Allen. He puts it up and drains it:
Here we had another play that began with a screen, this time by James. Upon rolling off, he recognizes that the Spurs will be scrambling to make up for the miscue between Leonard and Parker. He waits but a second for San Antonio's defense to get lost in the craze, looks toward the obvious option (Wade) then rips the most difficult pass he can make into Allen's hands for an easy three.
Few players in the NBA can do this. Even fewer actively look to do it.
James is unique in he doesn't always look to make the easy pass; he looks to create the highest percentage shot available.
Other point guards are focused on materializing easy buckets, but when presented with a foray of options like James often is, the risk factor comes into play. They'll settle for a guaranteed catch over what could be a more efficient look, simply to avert the threat of a turnover.
Better yet, not everyone can anticipate the play as well as James can. He sees everything we saw, only in real time. He reads defenses instantly and is always one rotation ahead of everyone else.
The end result of his superior basketball intellect is almost always the same. Miami scores and so he conquers—often in the most innovative of fashions possible.
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