So LeBron James hasn’t played especially well in the first three games of the NBA Finals. He was particularly bad in Game 3. So I asked a friend who knows from basketball for his take. And this is what he e-mailed back to me:
He’s been held under 20 points all three games. There’s two sides to this.
The Spurs have a sound scheme. The Pacers gave the Heat trouble with their two bigs, and the Spurs are doing the same (except they have more offensive firepower). They’re laying off Lebron, tempting him to shoot jumpers, but he’s got a drive-first mentality that’s mostly good bball instinct but partially a hangover from the last series. The Spurs’ wings, Leonard and Green, are a great first line of defense, and with Duncan/Splitter in the middle, it’s really hard for him to find room. Leonard in particular is staying on his feet and not sending Lebron to the line. The Pacers let Lebron post up Paul George one-on-one and got burned, but the Spurs aren’t letting him back down for several seconds. So Lebron’s only option is driving and dishing, which means good assist numbers but not enough to combat that shrinking feeling that good defenses create. On top of that, the Heat rely on transition baskets– they either have to force turnovers or break off the defensive board. But the Spurs are shooting well AND Lebron & Co aren’t battling hard enough for the rebounds. (Mike Miller has to be playing for his 3s, but he’s almost as much of a defensive liability, somewhat due to lack of playing time.)
So the Spurs are doing what they should, limiting Miami’s strengths and magnifying their weaknesses.
But Lebron is clearly discouraged. He has lost confidence in his teammates, at both ends, and it’s affecting his effort. And he’s not getting the calls he’s used to, which will be especially true away from home. I think he thinks if he really asserts himself again and goes pure alpha-dog for stretches, he’s going to alienate them. And asserting himself means quick possessions, and it means launching long bombs and/or taking on three guys on the way to the rim.
I’ll tell you this. If the Heat are going to win a game in SA, Lebron’s going to have to have a 4-to-6-minute run where he does everything.
Then I asked him if he thought James would overcome these obstacles and he replied:
In the world where Tony Parker is hampered by a flukey hamstring injury, as he might be? Absolutely. Lebron would seize on that advantage, the unsteadiness it would create in the Spurs’ young guys, lead his team to ramp up defensively, and grab the momentum.
But if Tony Parker’s fine? I think Lebron’s going to have a couple more aggressive games, but it won’t be enough. Parker and Duncan and Leonard are too calm, and Pop’s got too sure a hand. They won’t get rattled.
That being said, Lebron is among the great ones. And what defines the great ones isn’t that they win all the time, no matter what. It’s that, despite superhigh expectations, they manage to surprise on the biggest stage. They face that moment when “isn’t he able to do more?” becomes “no, it’s not possible he can rise above this”, and they go ahead and do it. And I will gladly leave the door open for greatness.
Then I read this from Michael Wallace at ESPN. Tonight should be interesting.