Fact: My prediction that the Heat would sweep Games 3 through 5 in San Antonio was incorrect.
UNBELIEVABLY incorrect. Like, the-Spurs-won-Game 3-by-36-points incorrect. As my wise Uncle Eric* explained to me in that comments section, the Spurs’ team approach would carry the day over the one-on-one brilliance–or what is usually “brilliance” anyway–of the Heat’s star players. Ball movement and cutting beat standing and watching.
It didn’t hurt that Danny Green and Gary Neal had career games from beyond the arc (collectively they were 13-19 from downtown–unsustainable, in other words) but that doesn’t explain all of this unbelievable ass-whoopin’. There was the non-Big 3 starters Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem combining for 0 points. There was Chris Bosh — once considered a medium-list superstar — scoring 2 points in the 2nd Half. There was Dwyane Wade continuing to struggle to find easy shots. But most of all…
Question: Why does LeBron struggle to play his normal style in so many high-leverage games?
I wrote about watching LeBron in big moments and how it’s the most interesting theater the NBA has offered since Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls. He’s the most scrutinized player in the game today — if not of all time — and with the season on the line we never know if he’ll blow up for a 40-point triple double, or — like in tonight’s game — pull an inexplicable disappearing act.
In the regular season LeBron averaged 26.8 points per game, on an incomprehensible 56.5 percent shooting from the field. He also shot over 40 percent from downtown. To cap off his historically-efficient scoring season, LeBron shot 7.0 free throws per game, converting over three fourths of his attempts.
Through three games in this year’s Finals — that LeBron’s Heat now trail 2-1 — he is scoring 16.7 points on 38.9 percent shooting. He’s hitting just 23.1 percent from three, and, of most concern to Heat fans, he’s getting to the foul line just 2.0 times per game.
In the 2011 Finals, when Miami lost to an underdog Mavs team, there was a similar drop in LeBron’s scoring. His regular season numbers were 26.7 points on 51.0 percent shooting and 8.4 free throws per game. In the Finals? Just 17.8 points on 47.8 percent shooting and only 3.3 free throws per game.
And going back to where these high-leverage jitters began — the infamous East Semis with LeBron’s Cavs versus Garnett’s Celtics in 2010 — it was a similar story. That year, carrying a 61-win Cavs team, LeBron scored 29.7 points per game on 50.3 percent shooting. In Games 4 through 6 versus Boston — the weirdest three-game stretch of his career and all Boston Celtics victories — his scoring dipped to 21.3 points on 34.0 percent shooting.
Why does this happen so often to the player that — for 360 or more days of every single year — is by far the greatest in the game?
Theory: It’s Tom Thibodeau’s fault.
The current Bulls coach and former Celtics defensive coordinator followed up the NBA’s zone-defense rule changes by writing the book on how to prevent easy baskets. In particular, Thibs’ specialty has been — going back to the incredible 2007-08 champion Celtics season — stopping superstar scorers. Some might forget that the Lakers were favorites heading into the Finals that year, fresh off the Pau Gasol acquisition and blitzing the Western Conference Playoffs. But in the Finals, league MVP Kobe Bryant met a totally different, quasi-zone defense that shaded him away from the basket and into inefficient dribble jumpers. Kobe averaged 28.3 points that year on 45.9 percent shooting. In the Finals — that the Celtics won in 6 — Kobe scored just 25.7 points on 40.5 percent accuracy.
Thibs was still leading the Boston defense in 2010, when the Celtics did the impossible by making LeBron look human in the Playoffs. The Mavericks, coached by the great Rick Carlisle borrowed much of these help-defense schemes in 2011, working to keep James out of the paint as much as possible, and in Games 1, 2, and 3 of this Heat-Spurs matchup, there is rarely a moment when one of Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter isn’t [over]-committing to anticipate what LeBron might do with the ball.
The natural follow-up question to this theory is: Why don’t LeBron’s opponents do this during the regular season (or earlier in the Playoffs)? I think it’s probably a combination of factors, the most obvious of which is that as the Playoffs move along LeBron is facing increasingly good teams that defend better than most. There is also the fact that his teammates — for most of the year, and even sometimes in this series (Mike Miller) — often make opponents pay for overhelping on LeBron. They make open shots. Chris Bosh in particular should be stepping up more than he has thus far. He was a virtual no-show in tonight’s game, given the stakes and the opportunities that San Antonio allowed him. Bosh needs to be scoring 20 or more every single night against this style of defensive scheme.
In case my last prediction didn’t make clear, I have no idea what to expect from here on out. With Miller shooting so well, I would normally think LeBron’s team would be totally unbeatable. Then again, he’s being more than offset in that department by Green and Neal. But I do know this: LeBron has the talent to go down as the greatest to ever play and his legacy will be something well short of that if it is so marked up by no-shows in pivotal moments. This isn’t a Skip Bayless media-hype invention. It’s a fact, and it makes each game that much more compelling.
Until next time.
*My uncle really is smart, by the way — he wrote this excellent book on climate change that I recommend to anyone with an interest in learning more about the alarming subject.