Posted June 12, 2013

NBA Finals: Spurs show that neglect may be the key to stopping LeBron James

2013 NBA Finals, Ben Golliver, Gregg Popovich, LeBron James, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs
(Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images)

LeBron James (6) said Miami’s Game 3 loss was his responsibility. (Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images)

SAN ANTONIO — The best defense is often the one that’s least expected.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich waded deep into the Sea of Counterintuitiveness during San Antonio’s 113-77 dismantling of Miami in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday, regularly instructing his players to leave the best player in the world, LeBron James, wide open on the perimeter, free to assess, think, dribble and shoot to his heart’s content. It’s hard to remember a time, even early in James’ career — when he shot 32 percent or worse from three-point range in three of his first five seasons — where neglect was so regularly employed as a means to defeat him.

Dare him to pull up from deep? Sure. But purposefully and repeatedly give James, the best all-around offensive force since Michael Jordan, a cushion of two, or three, or even four full steps to operate? That’s a different story.

No single strategic defensive move against James is perfect or necessarily sustainable, but this was a brilliant gambit that, for a night, played out exactly as Popovich surely hoped it would. James finished with just 15 points on 7-of-21 shooting and didn’t attempt a free throw for just the second time in his playoff career.

“We haven’t stopped anybody,” Popovich said afterward, surely knowing James is too talented and intelligent not to respond as the series continues.

Make no mistake, the full sag-off on James wasn’t the Spurs’ only defensive look, but it was the most unusual and it was incredibly successful. “Daring James to shoot” doesn’t accurately capture the thought process at play here. James isn’t Celtics guard Rajon Rondo, who consistently finds himself unattended on offense as teams dare him to shoot from the perimeter, where he was just a 28 percent three-point shooter this year. In fact, James had the best shooting season of his career, hitting 56.5 percent overall and 40.6 percent from three-point range during the regular season, putting him among the league leaders in both categories.

So when the Spurs fall back on James, they do so knowing the math at play is risky, way riskier than employing a similar strategy against Rondo or a high-volume, low-efficiency chucker like Bucks guard Monta Ellis. This isn’t “daring James to shoot”; it’s more along the lines of a “lesser-of-two-evils” strategy. San Antonio apparently decided, at least for Game 3 and for a few possessions in Game 2, that when James is operating on the perimeter with the ball, he is a less deadly offensive weapon when kept on an island by himself than when he is defended straight up.

Why? A number of reasons.

1) Guarding James on the perimeter requires a body that he is often able to elude with relative ease. Once he beats his first man, he puts the defense in a 5-on-4 situation. These often end badly for the defense: James can end up on the free-throw line after drawing a foul from a help defender who is late arriving or intending to stop easy plays at the rim; he can collapse a team defense and rifle a pass to one of Miami’s many shooters; or he can get all the way to the rim, where he finishes at an extraordinarily high clip.

2) James is far and away Miami’s best playmaker, especially with Dwyane Wade playing inconsistently while nursing a knee injury. Miami has been one of the league’s best three-point-shooting teams all season, and James’ ability to throw laser, pinpoint passes across court and from every angle allows players such as Mike Miller and Ray Allen to camp in their hot spots, ready to deliver. Hanging off of James allows the Spurs’ other perimeter defenders to concentrate on their own responsibilities and it kept the passing lanes crowded.

3) The more James thinks in half-court situations, the less the ball moves and the slower the pace is for the Heat. The overwhelming attack that Miami displayed in Game 2 never materialized in Game 3, in part because of turnover problems and off nights from a number of key role players, but also because James did a lot of ground-pounding as he surveyed a scene not to his liking. The Spurs love to play fast and free offensively, but the more time James spends thinking, the less time he spends making the type of instinctive, aggressive attacks he managed during a third-quarter flourish in which he managed nine points on 4-of-9 shooting.

4) The back-off strategy also runs perfectly counter to one of Miami’s clearest goals: getting Wade, Chris Bosh and other offensive forces going early. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has long force-fed both Wade and Bosh early in hopes of establishing them on offense and shifting a defensive’s attention away from James. But if the defense starts by conceding to James while also remaining in a position that encourages isolation offense from Wade and Bosh, the Heat must rely on those two, who have both been inconsistent in the playoffs, to create their own shots. San Antonio will gladly live with that over the alternative world in which James slices and dices, helping to find easy hoops for Wade and Bosh.

5) So far, we’ve covered everything from spacing, to three-point defense, to pace, to prioritization of threats. We’d be remiss if we skipped over the mind-game aspect. It doesn’t seem fair or accurate to suggest that the Spurs are simply trying to mess with James’ head by backing so far off of him, but they must be enjoying his lack of comfort when it happens. James shot just 2-for-14 outside the paint and 1-for-5 on three-pointers in Game 3, and he often looked like he was attempting not to settle before ultimately deciding that it was the right basketball play to shoot. No one is more calculating than James when it comes to finding the best look, and he’s simply not used to having the best look right there under his nose anytime he wants it. That must be disorienting and confusing, even for a player of his ability.

Running down that checklist of explanations finds that the results were, in sum, magnificent from San Antonio’s perspective.

First, James didn’t get to the free-throw line, which is almost unheard of. Having defenders back, ready and well-positioned for his drives while also encouraging him to settle played a huge role there.

Second, no other Heat players picked up the playmaking slack. Wade tried, registering five assists, but Miami managed just 77 points, tying its season low. The one player San Antonio defended poorly was Miller, who went 5-for-5 from three-point range in 22 minutes. The rest of the Heat players shot just 3-for-13 from deep and San Antonio’s Finals-record 16 threes turned Miller’s night into a forgotten footnote.

Third, Miami really struggled with its rhythm and flow, losing all four quarters and getting blown out of the gates early in the third quarter. By the time James briefly entered attack mode in the third, it was too little, too late, as the Spurs’ own offensive confidence was already sky-high.

Fourth, Wade and Bosh combined for 28 points on 25 shots and took just eight free throws. By comparison, Danny Green had 27 points on 15 shots by himself.

Fifth, James looked and sounded fairly bewildered. “I just have to play better,” he said. “I can’t have a performance like tonight and expect to win. I’ve got to shoot the ball better, make better decisions and I will get into the film and see ways that I can do that. I’m not putting the blame on anybody. I’m owning everything that I did tonight. … I’m putting everything on my chest and on my shoulders and I have to be better.”

Upon reviewing the film, James will likely decide he needs to attack the softer coverage by looking to score first and ask questions later. Getting to the rim and the line are priorities that can’t be compromised on this stage. He’ll probably give himself a little mental reminder that a hesitant jumper is a jumper that isn’t worth taking. Spoelstra may decide to put James into the post, where San Antonio doesn’t have the luxury of sagging off of him, or get him on the move in half-court sets to prevent some of the stagnation that was evident in Game 3. The coach will also preach defense, defense, defense, of course, as the Heat are always at their best flying out in the open court after a turnover, finishing alley-oops or locating wide-open threes in transition.

San Antonio has found success defensively in many ways this series, despite a blowout loss in Game 2. Kawhi Leonard and Green are skilled individual defenders and incredible competitors who are not backing down in the slightest. The Spurs have handily won the rebounding battle in two of the three games. Popovich has mixed up his looks on James, occasionally throwing double- and triple-teams at him when he gets into the post. Those things considered, backing off James was just one of the many tricks in the Spurs’ bag.

This was a particularly delicious one, though, because it truly was an absurd turn of genius. Really, who would have guessed that the best way to stop the modern game’s most magnetic force, on and off the court, would be to ignore him?

20 comments
airmjbsanders
airmjbsanders

One of the many good things @ LBJ struggling yet again in the Finals is that it’s an opportunity to teach the youngins @ the game!IMO the biggest problem w/ Bron-Bron is that he’s really a tweener – the best tweener in league history, but still a tweener.This cat is the exact same size as the Mailman, but he’s hardly got any post-game.He needs the balls is his hands all the time, but he turns the ball over too much to be a true PG (a la Magic).He’s a wing player, but has never (& most likely never will) developed a consistent stroke from the outside (a la Bird).He’s only ‘go-to move’ is to use his first step, leapin ability & strength to attack the rim, yet when he gets to the FT line he only makes ¾ at best.

LBJ is the classic case of a player w/o a true position.Remember how they tried to play him @ PG when he first came into the league?His athletic ability has allowed him to put up monster #s, esp in the reg season, but when he faces veteran teams w/ top-notch coaches in the playoffs, all of his weakness get magnified.

Unfortunately for the LBJ slurpas & MIA Hype bandwagon, you can’t ‘fix’ a player who’s 28 & been in the league 10 yrs…

flkeys
flkeys

King Dork should be overthrown, IN  MIAMI. King Dork makes me wonder?. King Dork cannot hit the outside shots. How can the great city of Miami take pride in this Dork. Miami deserves better. Maybe there is something in Lebron head that makes him feel inferior. How can the king Dork, say he is that much better when he cannot hit the outside shot. Lebron is no Kobe. Lebron is no Michael Jordan. Arrogant Dork Lebron the flopper. Bienvinedos al Miami. Welcome to Miami !

RenoNoone
RenoNoone

The Spurs ain't doing anything new here:  back off LeBron and Wade - concede the outside shots but cut off any drives to the basket; if LeBron tries to post up, surround him with 6 pairs of hands and feet and eat him up; if LeBron and Wade hit their fadeaways and trays and win the game?   Well ... go up, kiss their hands, get their autographs, then come back and do the same all over again.

The Mavs offered up this blueprint two years ago and rolled the Heat in the Finals.  Popovich is merely improvsing on the same blueprint, and it's working.   The Heat has had one quarter of offensive explosion.   One.   I'll say that the odds are pretty good if you're San Antonio.


BillyJeanisMyLover
BillyJeanisMyLover

It could be argued that Spoelstra isn't really impacting his team via his coaching much at all.  Mostly they just space the floor and let Lebron and DWade the juicer create on their own.  Lebron's comment that he reverted back to his Cleveland days is telling.

riley8
riley8

Where are all the defenders of LBJ as better than MJ?  They are disappearing just like James is in this series.  

obvrx11
obvrx11

SI. Do your writers and editors get paid? Or are they all unpaid interns? Did you seriously spell "Bosh" as "Both"? "Fourth, Wade and Both combined for 28 points..."

GT500456
GT500456

Jordan would have averaged 50 points a game if teams "just let him shoot".

OK
OK

Yup, The Queen sure is another Michael Jordan. Yeah, right.

We won't even dare mention The Queen in the same sentence as the GOAT, Bill Russell - he of the 11 rings, two consecutive NCAA titles, and an Olympic gold medal.

Also CORRECTION: Show Me Da Green Or I Ain't Playin' for Da Red, White, and Blue does not have a knee injury; Show Me Da Green or I Ain't Playin' for Da Red, White, and Blue just wants more money from the Miami front office. If the Heat bosses don't fork it over, Show Me Da Green or I Ain't Playin' for Da Red, White, and Blue will stick it to them just like he stuck it to the United States and our Olympic team.

jojo37
jojo37

The thought of anyone trying to defend MJ in a NBA Final by letting him shoot like he wants made me laughing out loud. This would have been fun big time. :) 

James is an incredible player, but something like this would never have happened with Michael. Never ever ever. And that's the reason why he will never be as good as Michael. 

JamieBreslow
JamieBreslow

I though Steve Nash was the best all-around offensive force since Jordan. Stats show that playing on his offense netted more returns for a player and team than on any other player's teams in his time. And I think that would still hold true.

JBockert
JBockert

Lebron was terrible. I've never seen someone so big and strong play so small. Even when he does drive to the basket, he goes for a lay-in! It seems a terrible waste of talent - a guy that can get his head to the rim doesn't attach the rim and dunk on people. He is soft. I hope somebody can teach him to be more aggressive. It is painful to watch.

GT500456
GT500456

I can't see Miami winning this series.   The problem with the Heat is that their role players are shrinking on the big stage, and San Antonio is built to play 8 or 9 deep.

If SA wins on Thursday, it's over in 5.

KeysSteven
KeysSteven

One offensive rebound (11) and starting to cave to tres temptation (1-5) isn't the game Spoelstra wants from LeBron.  It's sign James is reverting to old habit and camping outside, too far away from the basket just as Bosh moves inside.  Spurs control down low (Duncan (REB 7O-7D) which feeds confidence of their aerial attackers from perimeter and energizes their defensive effort.   

Middleman
Middleman

@riley8 It sounds funny, but the young man is still figuring it out.  He'll win a championship, play at this level for 5-7 more years and have more championships than Jordan when he's finished.

OK
OK

@obvrx11  

Careful ob.

Benny is mighty quick with the censorship and he's got a very strong rabbi in his corner. Tread lightly around Benny.

BillyJeanisMyLover
BillyJeanisMyLover

@JBockert I'm no Lebron apologist but it bears pointing out that he's being double and triple teamed.  You can't just run over people.  You'll foul out before halftime.

vicente
vicente

@Middleman @riley8 

after 10 years in the league, he's still figuring it out?

one would think that he should have figured it out by now

he's a slow learner perhaps

maybe he'll figure out that posting up closer to the basket is where he should be playing and quit imitating magic johnson. i think magic is getting into his head everytime he hear magic telling evryone "lebron plays more like him than mike."

if theres anyone he should try to emulate , its none other than "the mailman" karl malone

lebron should try to be the next "mailman" and start to "deliver" on his promise. 


obvrx11
obvrx11

@OK @obvrx11 lol. Thanks, but please understand there's really no need to bring his religion into the typo. I think it's an institutional issue more than the writer's ability. The article was actually a great read, at least for me. Haha I'm just noticing I'm totally taking your advice. 

djp9
djp9

@Middleman @vicente @riley8 I don't mean to nit pick but people need to stop reading hype and find the truth. That includes on MJ. He was NEVER cut. This was his 'version'. He was the last guy not chosen for the Varsity squad and played the majority of the year at JV where he excelled. It was likely that playing time and not the 'slight' of 'being cut' that helped him most. Same point about coddling just MJ's 'truth' not quite accurate.

Middleman
Middleman

@vicente @Middleman @riley8 I totally agree that he has to deliver on the biggest stage.  I love the guy.  I just think that he's still maturing mentally because he's been told how great he is his whole life and very rarely put in a position where he must own up to things.  He seems to be improving on that front and I think that he'll continue to do so and deliver a championship this year and multiple championships to follow.  I think people overlook the fact that MJ was cut from a team and went to UNC where he had to earn things.  Due to our microwave society of today, our elite athletes are coddled instead of challenged.  It's unfortunate that LeBron has to go through this so late in his career, but I think that he'll improve and be better for it.