Here’s a video of LeBron James, in crunch time, during Miami’s Game 5 loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals — a defeat that pushed the Heat one loss from elimination and spawned 48 hours of media coverage about how the league MVP would face perhaps the most pressure of his NBA career during Game 6 in Boston:
And here’s James again, in crunch time, during Miami’s Game 3 victory in the NBA Finals. This is about a minute before Dwyane Wade’s cough-up to Thabo Sefolosha that gave the Thunder a fleeting chance at a miracle comeback:
This is the difference between success and failure in the NBA, between a player quaking in the moment — failing to use his left hand on the right side of the rim — and a player rising to the occasion under stress. The line can be very, very thin.
There are differences between these two plays, even though they look almost identical. The pick for James in the first play is set closer to the hoop, at the top of the circle rather than out above the three-point line, and only after LeBron has dribbled back to reset the offense. In the second play, James takes the screen in semi-transition, and above the three-point line. Those small but crucial distinctions mean a lot. James had less space and time to build up speed on the first play, and the help defender (Kevin Garnett) had less ground to cover than Kendrick Perkins did in chasing James toward the rim. Garnett is also much better at this kind of thing than Perkins, leaving Oklahoma City fans to wonder if Serge Ibaka might have forced a tougher shot attempt from James on Sunday.
But the process is the same, one of attacking the basket and living with the make-or-miss consequences. And the process should matter as much as the results when we discuss individual and team performances during crunch time. The process drives results as sample sizes gets larger. If the process is broken or inefficient, the results will reflect that — and it likely won’t take long.
The process hasn’t always been perfect for James and the Heat, even over the last five games of splendid play. A “your turn, my turn” dynamic can still infect Miami’s late-game offense when the pace slows, and, in Game 3, James had one or two pick-and-rolls with Dwyane Wade that served more to eliminate him from the play than to provide a potential passing target for Wade. And even amid his clutch brilliance in Game 2, James tossed a strangely passive pass to a well-covered Shane Battier in the right corner with five seconds remaining on the shot clock and 1:55 left in the game. It was a dish that came after James held the ball for several seconds at the top of the arc, and one that left Battier in the uncomfortable position of having to make a play off the dribble.
But one of the best things about these Finals has been the way that all of the artificial talk-radio narratives are beginning to fade away. James has been plenty good enough in crunch time over the last two games, and even in a ho-hum Game 1 “clutch” performance, James hit two foul shots and nailed a tough “and-one” in the final three minutes to keep Miami within striking range. LeBron is always one late-game meltdown from turning the media hysteria into an all-consuming force, but so far, he has given the screamers no fodder.
In fact, most of the media have even been surprisingly even-handed in their assessment of Russell Westbrook’s play, despite Magic Johnson’s provocations during halftime of Game 2. The “crazy, selfish Westbrook” narrative hasn’t gained much traction among media who cover the NBA year-round. Folks are instead focusing on Westbrook’s role in the Thunder’s offense, how the team’s starting lineup struggles to score at times and how Westbrook alternates moments of inspired point guard play with mediocre shot selection and overlooked passing lanes. There has been surprising room for nuance in these Finals.
And so we are left to discuss great basketball teams trying to figure each other out with actual basketball strategies. And that’s exactly as it should be.