LeBron James looks like a power forward. The recent development of a post-up game has allowed him to bang and bruise like one. And yet when James is actually slotted at the four, he once more shape-shifts and redefines the position entirely.
"He's still the one who's handling the ball for the most part," says Pacers associate head coach Brian Shaw. The Heat coaches exploit James's versatility by flipping their sets upside down and using their point guards to screen for him in the pick-and-roll. "They're probably the only team in the NBA that does that," says Indiana power forward David West. That mismatch-creating play generated open lanes to the basket and enabled Miami to salvage a 103--102 overtime win in Game 1 of the Eastern finals: While James's buzzer-beating layup got the most attention, he had an equally crucial finish 10 seconds earlier against point guard George Hill, who had to switch onto James after Miami's 6'2" Norris Cole freed him with a screen.
To finally ascend to the championship last year, James first had to learn to ply his trade down low. Before the season he spent four days working on low-post moves with Hakeem Olajuwon, and his fill-in work on the block when Bosh was out with an abdominal injury was a crucial factor in Miami's 2012 second-round win over the Pacers. The difficulty James creates in the post leaves opposing defenders wishing more than ever for eyes in the back of their heads. "It gives him another point of penetration, and now you've got to account for him being that much closer to the basket," says Shaw. "When he's out on the perimeter, all the other sets of eyes are on him and they're able to help when he drives. But when he's down on the post and [the Heat has] everybody else lifted on the other side, he's so big and strong that he can make a move and get to the basket on one dribble."
If a defender does have time to double-team James on the block, that just opens up more potential problems. "They've got guys on the perimeter that can cut and keep the floor spaced," says Shaw. "And then you have to say, O.K., LeBron is going to have to score 60 and beat us or we've got to double and get it out of his hands—and that's when shots open up for Ray Allen and Mike Miller and whoever else is in the game. That was the situation when I was [a point guard] with the Lakers with Kobe and Shaq: You have to pick your poison and see which one of those scenarios is going to hurt you the least and just live with it."
When James switches to the four, he creates cross matches that he and his teammates can attack in transition and in early offense. In the half-court it's another story altogether: While James loves to bully the smaller power forwards, his success diminishes against traditional power forwards like wide-body Zach Randolph of the Grizzlies or Indiana's rugged West—which is why the Pacers weren't expecting James to play much power forward in this series. "I don't think they want to see LeBron on David West at all," says Shaw. "They've tried that a few times and David just punishes him."
As James moves into his 30s and his quickness dwindles, however, Shaw expects to see him morphing into a four, where he can rely more on brute force. "You see it with everybody," says Shaw. "Jordan went from slashing and dunking all the time to more of a post-up turnaround-jumper game as the wear and tear started [affecting] him. Your game evolves because Father Time catches up with you."
When the time is right, James could yet become the league's most challenging power forward, having both an unparalleled ability to pass out of the post and a touch that will stretch defenses out to the three-point line. "It's shocking to be the best player in the world and continue to improve," says Pacers coach Frank Vogel. But those worries are for another day. James turned Game 3 into a convincing 114--96 win by backing small forward Paul George into the post for many of his 22 points while waiting for double teams that never came. He was able to play like a power forward without leaving his natural position. Never mind the future: The Pacers had their hands full already with James in his current form.