Photo by Issac Baldizon/Getty Images
Looking at the box score from Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, one statistic caught my eye. It was not the crazy rebound differential (Indiana + 19) nor was it the five turnovers that Paul George committed (he is averaging 4.5 TOs in the ECF). My eyes gravitated to LeBron James stat line and his 7 three-point attempts. Since when does LeBron take 7 threes in a game?! That’s the same number of three point shots that Ray Allen attempted and more than anyone on the Indiana Pacers. Yes, LeBron did make 4 of those 7 three’s, but at what cost?
The LeBron James we saw this season is not the same LeBron James that won league MVP in 2009-10 with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That LeBron James had no post-up game and was content chucking up three pointers and perimeter jumpshots from the point-forward position. LeBron brought that game to Miami and despite having more freedom to drive to the basket and create havoc in the paint, LeBron still relied on an unreliable perimeter game, especially in the playoffs. This style of play led LeBron to take 31.1% of his field goal attempts from behind the three-point line during the 2011 NBA finals matchup against the Dallas Mavericks. After that finals loss, LeBron reinvented his game to be more versatile and paint oriented with the help of Hakeem Olajuwon (I never get tired of watching the Nigerian Nightmare shake-and-bake), and coach Eric Spoestra installed a new motion intensive offensive that spread the floor in order to allow LeBron to penetrate, work in the post and find open shooters camped out behind the three-point line. The Miami Heat won a championship last season and led the NBA in field goal percentage this season because of this motion offense and LeBron’s commitment to cause havoc in the paint rather than dance around on the perimeter.
Fast forward to this year’s playoffs. The Heat rolled over the Milwuakee Bucks, fought off an injury-depleted yet scrappy Chicago Bulls team, and now find themselves in a battle with the Indiana Pacers partly because Dwayne Wade is injured, Chris Bosh has been as effective as a fork in a bowl of cereal and Ray Allen looks like a shell of his former self. The Pacers have turned the series into a physical grind-out battle and now the Heat are faced with a bit of adversity. LeBron’s response to adversity in these playoffs has been to take over and carry his team, but in the three games that the Miami Heat have lost, LeBron has gone back to his old habit of hoisting up a high percentage of three point shots. 30.9% of LeBron’s shot attempts in playoff losses have been three-pointers compared to 19.6% in playoff wins.
Yes, the number 1 ranked Indiana defense has a lot to do with LeBron’s shot selection, but LeBron has the ability to get to any spot on the court. An astonishing 55 fouls were called in Game 4, but of those 55 fouls how many do you think were called on Roy Hibbert? 3? 4? If you guessed 1, then go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back. Only 1 foul out of 55 was called on Roy Hibbert (ranked 5th in fouls per game during regular season) and this is partly due to LeBron’s preference to stay out on the perimeter rather than attack the rim where Hibbert camps out. Roy Hibbert has been the second best player in this series, and his presence on the court is detrimental to the Heat offense.
Yes, LeBron needs some help from his teammates. There is no arguing about that. Other than LeBron and Chris “Birdman” Andersen, the Heat have shot 41% from the field against the Indiana Pacers. Chris Bosh has grabbed a total of 14 rebounds in 4 games, and the three-point shooters that LeBron has relied on to make threes have been unreliable (Ray Allen went 1-4 from three-point land in the 4th quarter of Game 4). Still, LeBron has shown us that he has the ability to put a team on his shoulders in order to win a playoff series. There is no doubt in my mind that he can do this if he takes the right shots and doesn’t fall back into old habits.