The Cleveland Cavaliers trail the Golden State Warriors 3-1 in the NBA Finals, though not due to a lack of trying from LeBron James.
Once again, James is carrying a superhuman load to try and keep the Cavs afloat against a vastly superior Warriors team.
In four games, James is averaging 31 points per game on 54% shooting, 38% from three-point range, with nearly 12 rebounds and 10 assists per game. He’s played 166 minutes of a possible 192 and the Cavs have been outscored by 31 points in the minutes he hasn’t been on the floor. When he’s on the floor, the Cavs have outscored the Warriors by six.
Part of James’ dominance in the series has been his ability to digest what the Warriors want to do on both ends of the floor and countering it. As noted by Ben Falk, a former 76ers executive and writer for Cleaning the Glass, one play in particular highlights James’ incredible basketball I.Q. and his value to keeping the Cavs alive.
The play came in the third quarter of the Cavs’ Game 4 win. Kyrie Irving ran a pick-and-roll with Tristan Thompson, and the Cavs turned it over as Stephen Curry jumped the passing lane and got the ball . The Warriors went the other way and missed, and James took over. James ran the exact same play wth Thompson and it led to a corner three from J.R. Smith. Here’s the play:
As Falk broke down, the first play was James observing. He sat on the elbow, directed Irving to run the pick-and-roll, and just watched. What he saw was the Warriors’ defensive scheme. They trapped Irving, forcing him to give up the ball to Thompson. Curry, sitting in the corner, came over to “tag” Thompson — that is, brush up against him to slow his roll — and ended up jumping the passing lane, getting the steal.
On the next trip down, James knew the scheme. He ran the same play with the ball now in his hands, took the trap, faked a pass to Thompson to get Curry to jump out of position, then whipped a pass to Smith for the open three.
The number of players who can do this, on the fly, is limited. Sure, some great point guards can read the coverage and make an adjustment, but very few can rebound the ball on one end, bring it full court, pick a play to run, handle the trap without panicking, fake the pass to set up the play, then hit the open man.
The Cavs may not win the championship, but James’ genius is worth appreciating.