“Paul Pierce wanted to guard LeBron, he shoulda had a blindfold and a cigarette too” — Charles Barkley
LeBron James tied a playoff career-high Monday night with 49 points in the Heat 102-96 Game 4 win over the Brooklyn Nets. While the point totals are identical, the two games in which LeBron put up his career-high couldn’t be more different.
Five years ago, at the tender age of 24,* ‘Bron chucked his way to 49 against the Orlando Magic in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, and limped off the court in pain and in defeat. Last night, he skipped off the court, face full of disappointment, not because of the result of the game, but because of the fact that he left at least one more point on the court, and in his words, “to put up 50 in a playoff game, that would have been pretty cool.”
The advancement of James’ game is well documented; in the five years since his first 49, LeBron has gone from an inefficient isolation slasher to an ultra-efficient back to the basket bruiser capable of picking defenses apart with a wide array of assaults. The evolution and stark differences between the two Lebron’s was on full display last night, the varied shot charts and free throws attempted central to the narrative.
Ironically, LBJ shot 66.7% in both games (20-30 in ’09, 16-24 last night) but the amount and types of shots taken were what separated the performances. More than half (13) of LeBron’s 24 shots last night were taken in the paint, he made 12 and Chris Anderson immediately tipped in the lone miss. In 2009, against what was the best version of Dwight Howard, LeBron took 11 shots in the paint, making eight of them, meaning just about a two-thirds of his shots were jump shots.
So in this sense James scored 49 points that night in spite of himself. The midrange jump shot, the new-era analytics nightmare of a shot, was relied upon just as much as James paint attack, and because of this he had to work harder to get his 49 back then. He took nine midrange jumpers that day, compared to just four last night, even though he was able to knock down seven, this also meant nine less free throw attempts as he attacked the rim less.
And it wasn’t just LeBron that varied in the two career games, it was also the organizations which house the four-time MVP that couldn’t be more different. Instead of Mike Brown** there is Erik Spolestra, the architect of the schemes allow James to constantly be in such great position once he receives the ball, the man who reigned in James’ talent and asked that he used it more efficiently.
Instead of Mike Brown simply handing LeBron the ball and watching him create shots, Spolestra sees to it that more shots are created for LeBron, and not so many by him. Instead of dribbling 30 feet from the hoop at the behest of Brown, here James is receiving the ball on the block, just a few feet away from the hoop and just a move away from a wide open bunny. He thrived, too, scoring on 11 shots from inside the semi-circle, including an And-1 in the third quarter.
In one last touch of irony, there was a play that was strikingly similar, identical even, one that occurred in both games to different results. It goes a little like this: LeBron drives into the lane, forcing the opposing defense to bend in ways they were designed to avoid, and in one fell swoop finds an open recipient of a pinpoint pass along the perimeter. This pass sends the defense scrambling to rotate and cover the players it left to gravitate towards the activity of James, and one pass later there is a wide-open teammate with a chance to give his team the lead.
In 2009, this teammate was the infamous Delonte West. He hoisted up a brick with six seconds left that practically ended the game. Last night, it was Chris Bosh, a nine-time All Star and probable Hall of Famer, and despite missing two shots immediately prior, he sank the basket, and the Nets never scored another meaningful basket.
In just five years, James has refined his game to the point where he can dig in and produce a moment like last night’s whenever it’s necessary for his team’s chances. But so to have his surroundings, so that whenever he has to produce another mammoth game, his supporting cast can chip in the necessary help to insure the team walks away with a W.
Now, if he had only made that last free throw.
* – This was James’ sixth season, and Kevin Durant should keep this in mind, as he likely will have a new coach in the future. I don’t know how KD’s game can and will evolve in the next five years, but I am positive there are dozens of potential Scott Brooks replacements who are just salivating at the thought of getting the chance to figure that out. KD’s 40 points in the Thunder’s Game 4 loss to the Clippers Sunday was just one point away from a playoff career high.
** – Of course LeBron drops a better version of those 49 points the day Brown is fired by the Cavs for the second time.