Biggest Reasons LeBron James Is Struggling in the 2013 NBA Finals
Maybe it's something about the Lone Star State.
LeBron James has played in three NBA Finals against Texas teams.
Is he shrinking in the moment, as the Spurs have taken a 2-1 series lead?
Or just overthinking?
Clearly, something is amiss. LeBron didn't score fewer than 20 points in any of the first 33 games of the 2012-13 regular season. He's now scored fewer in each of the three games of this series. He isn't getting to the rim (no free throws in Game 3) and he isn't making his jumper.
He has appeared hesitant rather than dominant.
He's been outscored by his former Cleveland Cavaliers practice victim, Danny Green, who is saying things like this:
He's kind of stopped himself out there and we're getting a little lucky.
James promised that luck would turn:
I'll be better.
What's made it so hard so far?
(All quotes for this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post.)
Little Help from Rest of Big 3
Over time, LeBron James has learned to take responsibility for his team's fortunes.
It is an admirable trait, and it was on full display following the Miami Heat's 113-77 face plant in Game 3 against the San Antonio Spurs. He repeatedly stated that he needed to be better—which is true—and then he said something else that stretched the truth too far:
My teammates are doing a great job and I'm not doing my part.
Um, no, they're not.
Not consistently, anyway.
And in Game 3, not on either end.
Mike Miller, banished to the back end of the bench for much of the season, has made eight straight three-pointers. Other than Miller and Ray Allen, no one can seem to make an outside shot.
And the team's two other current All-Stars?
Wade has an excuse—a bruised right knee that has bothered him for months—and Bosh has at least recorded 10 rebounds in each of the past two games. But even with Wade's strong start in Game 3, neither is scoring anywhere near their usual rates. Bosh and Wade have failed to combine for 30 points in seven straight games, the longest such streak since the trio came together in the summer of 2010.
If either broke out, it might force Gregg Popovich to alter his defensive plan and that might free James some. But, at this point, that would be breaking a multi-week trend.
Gregg Popovich's Plan Makes Sense
Gregg Popovich does not come to bury LeBron James off the court.
He always comes to praise him.
It was Popovich, among all NBA coaches, who was most vociferous in his defense of James' offensive approach the past couple of years, using it as an opportunity to partake in one of his favorite activities: mocking the media.
Like this gem:
None of the people talking about what he should do have near a clue of what the position is like that he’s in to make the decision. And if anybody’s going to make a good decision, it’s going to be LeBron James. What people will say now is that he finally gets it, because he’s doing this or he’s doing that. The story will change depending on what people want the story to be. The facts are, from the very beginning, he’s done whatever he thought best to win a game.
Popovich, however, knows what gives his San Antonio Spurs the best chance to win a game against James and the Miami Heat.
That's keeping the game's premier attacker from attacking.
That means using Kawhi Leonard as the primary defender, packing the paint, going under the pick-and-rolls and daring James to do the thing that James couldn't do in the 2007 NBA Finals, a series that the Spurs swept:
Make shots over the top.
“I’m a much better player," James said prior to this series. "I’m 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the ’07 Finals.”
But, with much the same strategy, Popovich has made him look much the same.
Kawhi Leonard Has Not Backed Down
In his first three series of the 2013 NBA Finals, LeBron James didn't have it easy when it came to the defenders that he drew.
Luc Mbah a Moute is a physical player who specializes on that end.
Jimmy Butler, subbing for Luol Deng, had boundless energy, seemingly as strong in his 47th minute as in his first.
Paul George, with never-ending arms, led the NBA in the advanced statistic of defensive win shares.
So far, though, a soft-spoken second-year man from San Diego State is giving James the most trouble.
Kawhi Leonard has had help, for sure, as a second Spur is often nearby, especially in the paint.
As James said:
They're doing a great job of putting bodies in front of me and not allowing me to have some of the creases I have had throughout the playoffs.
Even the gruff Gregg Popovich offered this much:
I think overall our team defense has been pretty good.
And James has helped Leonard's cause, by often waiting for the second defender to come rather than making a quick decision or strong move when he is in single coverage.
Still, Leonard, who has also been a force on the offensive boards, deserves considerable credit for his defensive work, even if he's not prone to give it to himself:
I'm studying my team concepts and just buying into our game plan. That's all I'm doing. Playing hard.
And playing well.
The Jumpshot Is Falling Flat
When LeBron James entered the NBA, and even through his first few seasons, coaches felt comfortable making a simple choice—the same choice that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has made in this series:
Better to make him shoot from the outside.
But James has always viewed himself as a work in progress, and he put in the offseason time to make the necessary corrections. The improvement in this area accounted for much of his leap in overall efficiency, to a career high of 56.5 percent from the field.
Prior to last season, James had never shot better than 35.1 percent from three-point range.
Last season, he shot 36.2 percent.
This season? He shot 40.6 percent.
From just inside the arc, he was better than ever as well. According to Hoopdata, James cut back his attempts from 16 to 23 feet, but made them at his highest rate, hitting 46 percent. He got away from the rushed shots, or the ones coming after several stand-still dribbles, to more frequently shoot in rhythm and on balance.
So what's happening in the NBA Finals, where he can't connect on anything outside the paint?
This was James' response following Wednesday's practice, when asked if his shot has felt good:
At times it has. Last night a few of them did. A few of them didn't. But I know, I've shot the ball—my rhythm, I've been in good rhythm all year. I've worked on it enough. Mentally it's not a problem. Mentally I'm not out of it, saying that my shot is gone. I know what I can do. It's just about going up there and knocking them down. I will do that.
Until he does, he'll get plenty of opportunity.
Too Much Thinking at Times
LeBron James' body is built for basketball.
So is his mind.
He reads defenses, recognizes patterns and senses situations as well as anyone in the game.
But it's best when he's doing all of that quickly, by just reacting and letting his ability take over.
That's not what he has done offensively in the first three games of the 2013 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.
He's often anticipated the second defender coming, but rather than making a move before that defender does, he's waited until that defender arrives before making any sort of move.
Sometimes, he's had an open jumper, but has stopped himself from shooting, choosing instead to pass off or dribbling in a couple of steps.
If he has looked passive, it's because he's pensive.
It simply seems that he's considering consequences, rather than just imposing his will by trusting his talents and going where he wants to go even if he initially meets some resistance.
If the worst that happens is an offensive foul or a clank of the rim, that's not insurmountable.
Here's how he summarized his Game 3 performance:
You can't have both of them. If you can go 7‑for‑21, but you get to the free‑throw line 10‑plus times, you're being aggressive. You have to be able to shoot the ball high clip from the field if you're not going to the free‑throw line. You can't have both. It's impossible for me to go 7‑for‑21, shoot 33 percent from the field and not have free throws. You have to figure out ways offensively that you can make an impact.
He does, and it appears he's trying to do that between games.
But if we see him thinking so much during it, the Heat's in trouble.