LeBron James put up 44 points in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals as the Cavaliers went down to defeat in overtime, failing to take advantage of what was probably their best chance to steal a game on the Warriors’ home floor. It was the highest-scoring Finals game of James’ career, and an at times dominant, yet at times frustrating performance.
In many ways, LeBron did a perfect job of exhibiting what I view as the good and the bad of his offensive game.
The good: He is an unstoppable scoring force who can bring a defense to its knees when he posts up, attacks the basket, and takes on-balance shots in the flow of the offense.
The bad: He too often bails out the defense with ill-advised, long-distance, low percentage shots, often fading away, completely outside of the flow of the offense. When he does this he fails to take advantage of his strengths and reduce his teammates to useless bystanders.
Good LeBron was on display in abundance, as he posted up no less than 26 times – surely as much as any time in his career. As an onlooker who often bemoaned his unwillingness or inability to do work in the low post throughout the first half of his career, it is refreshing and rewarding to see him going to his now beautifully-refined post game.
He and his coaches know that this is his best offensive weapon – he used it to destroy the Hawks in the Conference Finals and used it when his back was against the wall as a member of the Heat over the last couple of seasons. In Game 2 of last year’s Finals, he was so intent on setting a tone down low that he did not take his first jump shot until three minutes into the second quarter – a performance that I will always hold dear.
Only four players have posted up more than him in the playoffs, per NBA.com: Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin. Having posted up on just 8.6% of his regular season possessions, that number was up to 15.1% for the postseason going into the Finals.
Who is really going to stop him on plays like these without fouling him or sending double team help that will allow him to get his teammates involved?
What a shame it is, then, that Bad LeBron would rear his less efficient head so often, particularly late in a close game with his team in need of cogent leadership more than ever:
Over the final two minutes of regulation and the first four minutes of overtime – the six-minute stretch that ultimately determined the outcome of the game – LeBron was 0-for-5 with a turnover and no assists.
Four of those five shots were highly ill-advised – none more so than his attempted game winner with 3.8 seconds remaining in regulation, a fading, off-balance 22-footer with a hand in his face:
Andre Iguodala did a great job contesting, and LeBron has hit plenty of shots just like this, but that long fading pull-up will never be a high-percentage look or anything better than a 30/70 proposition for him. LeBron can get a better shot than this in his sleep.
And maybe in his sleep he will have nightmares about how he and the Cavs failed to put this game away – a game in which they controlled the tempo and led by double figures in the first half and by four points with 5:08 remaining, a game that saw Kyrie Irving suffer a season-ending injury in the middle of an overtime that could have been avoided.
Why revert to isolation plays and long-distance pull-up jumpers when he is experiencing such success in the post and is one of the most physically gifted rim attackers the game has seen? The ill-advised shots are nothing new for him – he has been unable to resist taking two or three a game all season long:
He has been taking more and more of these shots during the playoffs, a time when he should be more focused on manufacturing only the highest quality looks.
The stats back up the eye test: For the postseason, LeBron is taking 9.3 pull-up jumpers a game, on which he is shooting a god-awful 22.3%. These are numbers unbecoming of a player with supposedly one of the highest basketball IQs in the league.
For sure, the games missed by Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have increased the offensive burden on LeBron’s shoulders, but there are better ways to bear it than this. If a play is failing 77.7% of the time, why double down on it in volumes that would make Kobe Bryant blush?
He is the run-away leader in playoff isolation possessions – a relic of a bygone era in which inefficient and irresponsible offense ran rampant. On his 10.8 iso plays per game, he is shooting a ghastly 32.5%. By comparison, MVP Steph Curry is averaging just 3.2 iso plays and shooting 42.1%.
Ironically, Steph’s blind-side steal on LeBron with 1:52 remaining in overtime of Game 1 came on an iso play at the top of the key. It effectively ended the Cavs’ chances of getting back into the game:
Alas, it was an imperfect LeBron performance littered with poor offensive decision making (and ineffective defense, a discussion point for another day).
Statistically, it was the second-least efficient 40-point playoff game in 30 years, and though it was his highest-scoring Finals game to date, those eager to claim he has surpassed Larry Bird and is on Michael Jordan’s level may want to confiscate the tape.
Of course, we are nit-picking to some extent – but that is what we do with great players, and LeBron has always had a chance to go down as one of the six or seven greatest to ever play. That is why Bad LeBron is so frustrating to me.
Game 2 is tonight. For the sake of a competitive series, may Good LeBron reign.