Is Gregg Popovich Following 2011 Mavericks Guide to Shutting Down LeBron James?

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Is Gregg Popovich Following 2011 Mavericks Guide to Shutting Down LeBron James?

Let him shoot.

That's been the San Antonio Spurs' answer to the question of how to stop LeBron James. They're letting him shoot, just like the Dallas Mavericks did in the 2011 NBA Finals. And just like they themselves did in 2007.

To LeBron's credit, he's not always taking those shots. He attempted a conservative 16 and 17 shots in Games 1 and 2, before letting loose and jacking up 21 in Game 3.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It was the third game that was the eye-opener. Sure, the Miami Heat got obliterated by the Spurs, but it was LeBron's ineffectiveness that stole the show more than the loss itself.

Of those 21 shots, James hit on seven. Five of his seven makes came from inside the paint, leaving him 2-of-14 from anywhere outside of it.

Inefficient outside shooting has become the prevailing motif for LeBron in the Finals. Through the first three games, he's connected on just 38.9 percent of his field-goal attempts overall and 23.1 percent of his deep balls.

Similarly, LeBron shot just 35.6 percent from the floor and 20.0 percent from beyond the arc in 2007 against the Spurs.

All one needs to do is look at how he fared in both series to see the resemblance behind his struggles now in 2013.

In 2007, 45.5 percent of LeBron's shot attempts came inside the paint during the Finals. He was able to connect on 58.5 percent of his shots in those instances, a respectable number.

When he moved outside the paint, things changed drastically. LeBron was just 7-of-49 away from the rim, or 14.3 percent, identical—right down to the last decimal place—to the 14.3 percent clip he posted outside the paint in Game 3, six years later.

This year, the Spurs have limited LeBron using the same strategy—letting him shoot outside jumpers.

Just 40.7 percent of his attempts have come in the paint, where he's once again converting on a stellar 63.8 percent of them.

More than 59 percent of his shots are coming from outside the paint, though, and he's nailing a mere 21.9 percent of them (7-of-32).

Remember, San Antonio hasn't been the only team to employ such defensive methodology over the last half-decade. Dallas followed suit in 2011 when the Mavericks overtook the Heat in six games.

LeBron shot 47.8 percent from the field in that series, a number that was drastically bolstered by a 72.4-percent rate at the rim.

Here's a look at the percentage breakdown of LeBron's shot attempts from various distances during the three series in question:

Opponent At Rim 3 to 10 FT 10 to 16 FT 16 FT to 3-PT 3-PT
Spurs (2007) 37.8 10.0 7.8 22.2 22.2
Mavericks (2011) 32.2 13.3 10.0 13.3 31.2
Spurs (2013) 24.1 20.4 11.1 20.3 24.1

The key for the Mavs in 2011 and the Spurs in 2007 and now has been forcing (more like allowing) LeBron's offense beyond 10 feet.

Further evidence can be found just below:

In each of the three series, a larger portion of LeBron's shots came outside of 10 feet and the results weren't pretty, as the subsequent chart highlighting his success rate from different spots on the floor indicates:

Opponent At Rim 3 to 10 FT 10 to 16 FT 16 to 3-PT 3-PT Overall FG%
Spurs (2007) 62.7 22.2 14.3 15.0 20.0 35.6
Mavericks (2011) 72.4 41.7 44.4 33.3 32.1 47.8
Spurs (2013) 76.9 36.4 16.7 27.3 23.1 38.9

Notice how poorly LeBron has typically shot outside of 10 feet. He's yet to eclipse the 40-percent-shooting mark outside of 10 feet combined. That's not the efficient LeBron were used to seeing, but it's the one the Spurs have brought out in these Finals once again.

How they're doing it isn't exactly complicated. There's nothing complex about San Antonio's defense and no one person can receive all the credit for the results that have been yielded.

Kawhi Leonard has been sensational when guarding LeBron, but he hasn't done it alone.

"We're guarding him with five guys," Tim Duncan told reporters, via NBC Pro Basketball Talk, one day after the Spurs crushed the Heat by 36 points.

Duncan isn't kidding.

Simple things like going under every scheme have spurred this movement. Doing so gives Miami more outside looks, but it also cuts off potential dribble penetration.

Fettering the paint, defending against the drive—that's been the focus.

Take a look at this particular play from Game 3:

Leonard, when under the screen Ray Allen sets, gives LeBron an open three, which he missed. But pay attention to how many Spurs defenders are located well inside the arc.

The answer? All of them. 

We see the same thing here:

LeBron goes up for a mid-range jumper that Danny Green effectively contests. Behind Green, there are three other Spurs prepared to close LeBron's path to basket should he attempt to go baseline or attack the middle.

On those few occasions LeBron has reached the paint, the Spurs have flanked him.

Exhibit A:

LeBron is hounded by three defenders, making it nearly impossible for him to convert an easy bucket. There's even a fourth in Manu Ginobili, who is a heartbeat away from contesting LeBron himself.

This is what the Spurs have been doing all series. It's why they're up, 2-1. They've let LeBron shoot, but they haven't let him drive.

When he has gotten into the lane, they've bailed on everyone else. They don't care about giving up the three-ball. They'll let Miami shoot that all day if they have to.

What they care about is keeping LeBron away from the rim, at whatever cost necessary. Sort of like the Mavericks did in 2011.

But more like they did in 2007, before the Mavericks and anyone else.

 

*All stats were compiled from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise attributed.

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