All the Raptors could do was wait for LeBron James to make a move.
In the closing minutes of the first quarter of Toronto’s matchup with the Cavaliers on March 21, James found himself isolated on the left wing while his teammates cleared the floor for him by overloading the weak side. With J.R. Smith, George Hill, Jose Calderon, and Ante Zizic standing near each other around the perimeter, the Cavaliers gave James all the space he needed to attack in isolation, which he does at almost the same frequency as James Harden and at a rate few players in the league can match on the season.
Only this time James wasn’t necessarily looking to create a scoring opportunity for himself. There were still 11 seconds remaining on the shot clock when he squared up to the basket, so he waited for the Raptors to make his decision for him. Pascal Siakam, who drew the impossible task of guarding James on an island, had some help to his immediate left with DeMar DeRozan dropping down slightly lower than he usually would to provide resistance from the middle of the court. Jakob Poeltl also offered help by positioning himself underneath the basket to provide some much-needed rim protection in case James got to the hoop. James, however, forced Poeltl to vacate the area by holding onto the ball for longer than the Austrian center expected.
It was then when it became clear what James was doing. Knowing Poeltl could only be in the paint for three seconds, he held onto the ball until Toronto’s best shot blocker had no choice but to step out to the free throw line. With Poeltl no longer in the picture, James quickly shifted his attention to Serge Ibaka, Toronto’s second best shot blocker who was matched up with Smith in the opposite corner and lurking on the baseline. Had Ibaka’s focus been on preventing Smith from getting an open 3-pointer, he wouldn’t have abandoned his post. Instead, Ibaka created the slightest of windows for James to take advantage by replacing Poeltl underneath the basket.
James made Ibaka commit fully to helping out by moving his right foot in front of his left foot, as though he was finally ready to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket. It’s a move James uses frequently in 1-on-1 situations to get a step on his defender, similar to half-spin Isaiah Thomas used to shred defenders in isolation last season.
As soon as Ibaka’s momentum had shifted away from Smith and towards James, the Cavaliers’ star rifled a pass to Smith in the right corner, where he has made 54.2 percent of his 3-point attempts this season. James knew Ibaka wouldn’t be able to close out in time to prevent Smith from getting off a clean look.
Ibaka managed to contest Smith’s shot, but it wasn’t enough to force a miss. Here’s the entire sequence, which only takes a few seconds but includes a bevy of moving parts.
Of the 8,126 assists James has recorded in his NBA career, this one doesn’t come close to being one of the more memorable. It wasn’t even the most memorable assist he dished out on the night. That would be his last one of the game since it helped the Cavaliers secure the comeback win against the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and it put the finishing touches on what turned out to be an historic individual performance.
And yet, as simple as it might look on the surface, it’s these assists that serve as a reminder of how unique James is. Unlike almost every other player in the league, he can captivate the attention of an entire team without doing as much as standing in place, because the threat of him blowing by his defender and getting into the paint is enough to scramble one of the best defenses in the league.
From there, he can take whatever the defense gives him, whether it’s a baseline drive to the rim for a strong finish or a crosscourt pass to one of his teammates for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer.
This, for example, is what would’ve likely happened had Ibaka chosen to stay in place. It’s from Cleveland’s game against Houston. Notice how the Cavaliers are giving him all the room he needs — just like they did against the Raptors — and James is letting the Rockets’ defense dictate what he ends up doing. In this case, Houston is staying home on Cleveland’s shooters and James is being checked by Trevor Ariza, so he barrels his way to the rim.
Making the play against Toronto even more impressive is how quickly James processes each of the options. Within a matter of three seconds, he forced three different rotations — DeRozan first, then Poeltl, followed by Ibaka — and completed a pass only he can make on a consistent basis. It’s something he’s done countless times before, but it’s easy to take his greatness for granted when we’ve seen him do it on a nightly basis for 15 years.