The evolution of a star, and a team

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LeBron James’ efficiency from the block has lifted the Heat to within one win of a title. (NBAE/Getty Images)

Zoom out from all the noisy storylines about Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks’ lineup choices, the Thunder’s alleged crippling inexperience in the moment and whatever Magic Johnson says about point guard Russell Westbrook. Only then can you see the one big reason why the Heat are a victory away from an NBA title: In a series in which offense has triumphed over defense, the Heat’s offense has been a little better than Oklahoma City’s.

The Heat have scored 107.7 points per 100 possessions in this series, a number better than their regular-season mark and one that would have ranked only behind San Antonio’s. Oklahoma City, for all its struggles against a Miami defense taking away the first option on almost every possession, has scored a robust 105.8 points per 100 possessions. That mark would have ranked fourth for the season, even if it does represent a step down from OKC’s insane scoring totals through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Thunder have made crucial mistakes in the last two games, but they also found a way to gut out points against the best defense they have faced, one that’s forced them into uncomfortable places. That shows grit and poise, even amid the late-game issues.

In a series so close, all those little things matter enormously. It matters that the Heat have outscored Oklahoma City’s starters by 17 points in a four-game stretch in which the total margin is just five points (in Miami’s favor). It matters that Nick Collison vanished for long stretches in Game 4 after providing the best combination of offense and defense among Oklahoma City’s three core big men. It matters that Thunder point guard Derek Fisher, the veteran leader on a team whose youth is apparent, has wasted crunch-time possessions with terrible shots in each of the last two games. It matters that Dwyane Wade, seemingly unqualified for first-option duties, has managed to hit just enough nutty shots to keep Miami (almost) afloat when LeBron James sits. It matters that Chris Bosh has supplied great help defense.

But what matters most is that the Thunder cannot stop LeBron on the block. James has evolved into the dangerous post-up presence that everyone clamored for him to become since he entered the league nearly a decade ago. If Oklahoma City cannot find a better answer than leaving James Harden to die in the paint against James, it will have a hard time extending this series beyond Thursday.

By my count, James used a whopping 19 possessions on post-up plays in Miami’s 104-98 victory in Game 4 on Tuesday. The Heat scored 24 points on those possessions, an off-the-charts scoring rate of better than 125 points per 100 possessions. And that undersells the impact of James’ post game and the mere threat of his backing down a defender all the way from the three-point line. Those 24 points do not count the James-assisted three-pointer that Norris Cole hit at the end of of the first quarter, when Kevin Durant crept off Cole in the corner to patrol a possible LeBron back-down up top. They don’t count the free throws that LeBron hit when Fisher rammed into him on what was clearly setting up to be a James post-up play. They don’t count Bosh’s basket at the rim late in the second quarter, a second-chance possession that Miami was afforded only because of all the attention James drew in the post that allowed Bosh to sneak in for an offensive rebound, draw a foul and earn his team an out-of-bounds restart.

James scored from the block on jumpers and back-down moves, and, more important, he created offensive rebounding chances and open three-point looks for his teammates (he finished with 12 assists). These looks got Miami back into the game late in the first quarter, and coach Erik Spoelstra wisely went to James in the post after nearly every timeout in the first half. The Heat attempted 56 of their 79 shots (71 percent) from the lower half of the paint and three-point range, a much higher ratio than normal.

Miami also found smart little ways to vary the spacing around James, something that’s not an easy feat with four players often bunched on one side. Here, for instance, James Jones fooled the Thunder by passing the ball to James and looping up to the opposite wing instead of clearing to the weak-side corner — the cut that the Heat have typically used on these plays:


And James was masterful at reading help schemes, consistently finding the available passing lanes. If necessary, he even took an extra dribble to bring the help defense in one crucial step:


Here’s the amazing thing: These plays occupied a small section of Miami’s playbook before the playoffs, and even into the second round against Indiana.  Spoelstra and his staff have worked to build a dynamic motion offense around James, Wade and Bosh, a system that (when it’s working) emphasizes fast-moving screens in the corners and under the rim, a bundle of pick-and-rolls and a ton of transition play.

Then Bosh got hurt, and the Heat essentially reinvented themselves on the fly as a small-ball team more reliant on the isolation of Wade and James. That evolution reached its consummate stage on Tuesday, when James morphed into his own version of Michael Jordan on the block — a Michael/Magic Johnson amalgam, really — and the Heat played a traditional lineup with two big men for all of 43 seconds, and only then because of James’ cramping.

It’s an evolution that simply isn’t possible without James’ ability to create an inside-out attack by working relentlessly on the block. That is especially the case with Bosh still recovering from his abdominal injury and Wade hoisting too many bad shots amid his own injury issues. James has worked hard over the last two years to diversify his game to better fit his surroundings. He has honed a lethal post game, developed into a workable screener on pick-and-roll plays and become a dynamic off-ball cutter. Wade has made similar changes. The growth hasn’t always been smooth, and even in these playoffs, Miami’s offense has occasionally stagnated with one of its stars drifting into the corner as a non-threat.

In fact, some degree of stagnation will always be inevitable for Miami. Such is life when you team up two ball-dominant perimeter stars, neither of whom has a reliable three-point shot. But that stagnation is rarer now, and it often comes after at least one or two initial actions that get the defense moving. And in these playoffs, James’ post game has allowed Miami to be dangerous and stagnant at the same time — an effect this team did not have in its arsenal last season.

The net result is not just a potential crowning for James’ career, but also one of the greatest all-time playoff runs in NBA history. James is averaging 30.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists in 22 playoff games. Exactly one other player has topped 30/9.5/5.0 in a minimum of 10 postseason games: Oscar Robertson, during Cincinnati’s 10-game playoff run in 1963. James has accomplished that while playing as much as his body can handle and defending every position on the floor. He has made Durant’s life difficult by guarding him one-on-one, denying him the ball, defending players likely to screen for Durant (everyone ranging from center Kendrick Perkins to Westbrook) and lurking as a potential help defender on any dribble attack. Think about it: How many clean catch-and-shoot chances has Durant had in the Finals?

James has also come through in the “clutch” in each of the last three games, and all four, really, if you count the five points he scored in the last 2:45 of Game 1 to keep Miami alive. The hysterical LeBron haters have never accepted evidence that went against his crunch-time failure narrative, so perhaps those Game 1 points will strangely disappear from the record.

The rest won’t, though, particularly the one-legged baskets he made down the stretch on Tuesday. Those were wonderful highlight-reel moments, but James won that game — and quite possibly the series — by doing smart dirty work on the block. LeBron has evolved.  And in doing so, he has carried the Heat down a new and winning path.

  • Published On 12:11pm, Jun 20, 2012
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