Before leaving Game 1 with cramps midway through the fourth quarter, LeBron James left little doubt that he’d begin this NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs the way he did last season. James scored 25 points on 53 percent shooting Thursday, numbers well above those he managed at the beginning of the 2013 Finals despite being limited to just 33 minutes. While much of LeBron’s improvement was due to sheer offensive aggression, Erik Spoelstra and the Heat frequently put him in better positions to succeed.
The Spurs are uniquely equipped to defend LeBron: Kawhi Leonard is a physical marvel with natural instincts, Boris Diaw has a rare blend of size, quickness, and smarts, and the overall strategy of San Antonio’s system ensures that life will be made difficult for the reigning Finals MVP. That was clear from the outset of last year’s Finals, as James averaged just 16.7 points on 39 percent shooting through the series’ first three games. He turned things around in a big way down the stretch, of course, growth owed as much to necessity as comfort attacking the Spurs defense.
Most assumed San Antonio would opt to defend James this go-round the same way it did last season: going under every screen and playing several feet off the ball, goading LeBron into taking long jumpers or general perimeter passivity. But the Spurs chose a more traditional means of defense instead, with Leonard and Diaw pressuring James from the opening tip.
Here’s Leonard in LeBron’s grill at 18-feet:
And this is Danny Green pressuring the ball beyond the three-point line after a switch:
The Spurs stuck to that surprising script throughout Game 1, and LeBron took advantage: He attempted just five two-point shots from outside the paint, with the latter two coming as he was hobbled by cramps. That number is perfectly in-line with LeBron’s playoff shot-chart. Whereas San Antonio forced James to make wholesale adjustments in the 2013 Finals, it opened the rematch letting him play akin to his normal, preferred style.
Ever-cerebral, LeBron noticed. On three successive possessions in the second quarter, he pushed the ball in secondary transition after a Spurs basket and cleared out the left side of the floor to attack Diaw off the bounce. It’s one thing to expect Diaw to lay off James on the perimeter and bang with him in the post; it’s a whole ‘nother to ask the Frenchman to meet LeBron 20-plus feet from the basket, as is made clear below:
There’s just nothing Diaw can do to stop James when he’s built up that much speed and help defenders are stuck on the weak side. LeBron is too fast, too strong, and too skilled for the defense to allow a simple isolation against an overmatched defender. Diaw fouled him on the following possession, and when the Spurs sent help from the middle the next time down, LeBron found Chris Bosh for an open three-point try:
That’s far too easy for the Heat, and begs the question whether or not the Spurs will revert to checking James the way they did last season going forward. The final score doesn’t show it, but Miami was a freak LeBron injury away from winning Game 1 – the Heat led by seven points with 9:38 remaining, and four points with 6:31 left.
Considering Miami hasn’t lost consecutive playoff games since the 2011 Finals and James’ established proclivity for responding to ridicule, San Antonio might be best served mixing things up in Game 2. If the Spurs allow LeBron to so freely impose his will later tonight, it’s likely this series heads back to Miami tied 1-1.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.
How do you think LeBron will respond in Game 2?
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