Exactly one year ago, as the 2013 NBA Finals were about to tip off in Miami, the above inquiry was the question. After all, what is the most effective way to defend such a powerful, explosive, unselfish all-around threat?
If you paid attention to the epic series as it unfolded last season, you are well aware of the San Antonio Spurs’ strategy: Make LeBron James into an indecisive player by sagging off of him. Force him into situations where he has to decide whether to attack the teeth of the defense or whether to make the simple play, to pull up and shoot a mid-range jumper or 3-pointer.
Last year, it took James some time to figure out the remedy for San Antonio’s strategy.
But figure it out, he did.
Since the 2013-14 NBA Finals tips off today, it is vital to remember that James progressively learned how to attack the Spurs’ defensive strategy as the series wore on:
“I mean, after two‑and‑a‑half games I watched film, and my mind started to work and I said, ‘Okay, this is how they’re going to play me for the whole series,'” James said following his historic 37-point (12-23 FG, 5-10 3FG), 12-rebound, 4-assist Game 7. “I looked at all my regular‑season stats, all my playoff stats, and I was one of the best mid‑range shooters in the game. I shot a career high from the 3‑point line.
“I just told myself why?! Don’t abandon what you’ve done all year,” continued James. “Don’t abandon now because they’re going under. Don’t force the paint. If it’s there, take it. If not, take the jumper. And I think the last ‑ I did a good job in Game 4. Didn’t make as many shots I would like to from the outside in Game 5, but I kept on getting into the rhythm of it. Just saying everything you’ve worked on, the repetition, the practices, the off‑season training, no matter how big the stakes are, no matter what’s on the line, just go with it. And I was able to do that.”
These quotes lead us to this season, these playoffs, this rematch and the evolution of one of the best players to ever play this game.
Last June, James was legitimately perplexed for the first three games of the Finals.
Need proof? How about the fact that James attempted a total of six total free throws and scored 18, 17 and 15 points on 21-of-54 shooting through three games.
What are the odds that one of the most brilliant minds in basketball shoots that poorly again this June?
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich – undoubtedly one of the master strategists basketball has ever seen – certainly will add a few more wrinkles in an attempt to throw James off his game. Moreover, San Antonio’s home court advantage, absurd depth and outrageously efficient offense will apply even more pressure to James and Co. from the start of these Finals.
Reporting live from Miami this past weekend, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, who has covered James seemingly forever, said The King was locked in his house, watching film of last year’s Finals, reconfiguring how to attack the defense that was thisclose to denying him his second ring.
If the Heat are to secure their coveted three-peat, they will need James to hunt shots from the outset, to be a shooter and scorer first and a playmaker second.
If you take a look at James’ shot chart from the 2014 playoffs, it is clear he has done most of his damage around the hoop, which comes as no surprise. If you can’t keep him out of the lane – a nearly impossible task – he is going to destroy you as a finisher and playmaker.
But the rest of the court isn’t all green, meaning it is not a given that James knocks down mid-range jumpers and 3-pointers consistently enough for this Heat team to conquer the Spurs once again.
That being said, I don’t believe this is about percentages.
I believe that last June, James took the next step toward his Master’s Degree in “How to take over an NBA Finals.“
This year we will remember the Finals because LeBron James isn’t going to wait.
He will attack, and he won’t stop until he captures his third straight Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“He has a great way of figuring it out,” Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Wednesday through a smile at the podium. “If that’s the scheme, we’ll have to find a way to conquer it.
“If it’s making open shots, there’s a lot worse problems he could have, especially considering the level of competition.”
Jeremy Bauman is a shooting coach and aspiring front office professional who writes columns for SheridanHoops.com. At night time he can be found at STATS LLC / SportVU, the NBA’s emerging game-tracking software, as an Overnight Data Analyst. Follow him on Twitter @JB_For_3_.