Going into Game 2 of the 2015 Finals on Sunday, a 2-0 Warriors lead was seen by many as a foregone conclusion. 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists later, LeBron James was memorably spiking the ball high off the Oracle Arena hardwood and into the Oakland sky with the series tied at 1-1 and his greatest night as a Cavalier in the books.
This was a special performance, and it stemmed from his improved shot selection.
I wrote after Game 1 about two competing versions of LeBron on offense, about how too many Bad LeBron sightings kept his 44-point night from being one of his better Finals performances.
In Game 2, he set the tone with a first half that was Good LeBron in the extreme: a player making the most of his talents as a passer, scorer and dominant physical force, carrying his team to a surprising lead.
In the first quarter, he attacked the paint time and again both off the dribble and out of the post-up. He took ten shots and I had to compile them all in one YouTube video because every single one of them was smart:
In the second quarter, he morphed into full-time Point Guard LeBron, bringing the ball up 90% of the time and relying on look-ahead dishes and a variety of passes out of the pick-and-roll and the back-down post-up to create looks for his teammates.
At one stage, he set Timofey Mozgov up at the basket five times in the space of five minutes for either a bucket or a foul – a period of play in which as a duo James and the Russian were carving the Warriors’ defense apart:
In the second half, he mixed up his scoring attack but continued to attack the paint and unlike Game 1, worked for high-percentage looks in the most important moments:
I bemoaned his Bad LeBron 22-foot fade-away with 3.8 seconds left on the clock in Game 1, so I must celebrate his commitment to Good LeBron deeds here even though these two shots resulted in zero points. Fatigue or no fatigue, he has proven he can get into the paint whenever he pleases, and whilst he did not benefit from a friendly whistle in Game 2 he can expect to get more calls in Cleveland if he keeps up the dogged attack.
A high volume of shots are necessary in this series for LeBron, especially if the Warriors continue to be reluctant to send double teams his way, but it is possible for him to shoot a high volume of good shots.
Whilst 37% of his shots in Game 1 came in the paint, a full 54% of them came there in Game 2. The shot chart tells the story: this was a relentless and successful effort to get right into the teeth of the league’s greatest defense.
By my calculations, just five of his 35 attempts on Sunday were truly bad, ill-advised, no-rhythm shots – far fewer than Game 1. He shot 1-for-5 on those looks, the one conversion coming on this ridiculous bomb to which you just have to shake your head and tip your cap:
He was 3-for-6 from downtown, the first time this postseason he has shot better than 33% from there. Perhaps the basketball gods were smiling down on him for his overall efforts and improved commitment to cogence.
He battled on the boards and he was more locked in on defense than Game 1, where he got lost in help situations a few times. He did a better job of involving his teammates throughout, totalling 11 assists and finding Iman Shumpert for an open right corner 3-pointer with 17 seconds to go in regulation that would have sealed the win without the need for overtime – a shot Shump was shooting 8-for-18 (44%) on for the postseason going into the game, per NBA.com.
James shot 11-for-35, but like I always say: not all missed shots are created equal. Short-range misses within a determined offensive flow come with the added benefit in this series of limiting the Warriors’ opportunities to grab long rebounds and get out in transition, a staple of their vaunted offense.
The Cavs were able to rebound no less than eight of LeBron’s miscues themselves – a stat I have not seen quoted elsewhere that deserves more play. All these rebounds came on good shots – shots like these, on which LeBron himself grabbed the carom:
This was an all-LeBron, all-the-way, all-over-the-court kind of game, the type of performance he is built for and is now called upon to deliver without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in the lineup. Indeed, per Basketball-Reference.com, no one else has ever put up 39, 16 and 11 in an NBA game period, let alone a Finals game.
It was an intelligent, commanding performance. He was masterful in dictating the tempo, turning the game into a one-man show that was beautiful in its controlled ugliness, the antithesis of the Golden State style.
The Cavs’ new-found excellent team defense – for which head coach David Blatt and stand-ins Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson deserve much credit – was obviously key to the win, but it was aided by a LeBron-centric offense that successfully sucks the pace and flow out of the game.
Through two games I am getting flashbacks to the 2006 first round series between the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns and the over-matched Los Angeles Lakers. Behind a slow-it-down, ugly-it-up, pound-it-down-low strategy and a lot of Kobe Bryant brilliance, the Lakers got out of Phoenix with a 1-1 tie – and even took a 3-1 lead in the series. The Cavs are following a similar model.
Alas, the Suns eventually re-found enough of their offensive magic to come back and win 4-3, but a seven-game series would be something of a moral victory for a Cavs team missing its second and third best offensive players – and for LeBron, who mentioned in his post-game press conference that he is playing with “extra motivation.”
That motivation was clear when he celebrated by spiking the ball off the ground at the conclusion of Game 2 in what NBA.com’s Shaun Powell exquisitely described as “a fit of euphoria and frustration and satisfaction and Lord knows whatever additional emotion burned through his veins.”
It was, in my mind, the greatest ball spike in NBA history, edging out Kobe’s effort in Utah at the end of a regular season game in 2008:
Kobe’s, which was paired with MF-bombs aimed squarely at the home crowd, was motivated by anger over Jazz fans booing Derek Fisher on his return to Salt Lake City.
LeBron’s came with a higher basketball meaning, with a title on the line and Cleveland’s first ever Finals victory in the bag.
It is an image that will stay with fans forever and no doubt find its way onto all the YouTube career highlight reels when LeBron finally retires. It was one of the rawest spontaneous displays of emotion and energy we have seen from him. It was a fitting conclusion to a victory that had his fingerprints all over it, a victory that must go down as his finest as a Cavalier to date.
In Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals he rode a hot-shooting streak and his unparalleled athleticism to a legendary 48-point, 29-of-the-Cavs’-last-30 performance. That was his postseason coming out party as an all-time great.
In Game 2 on Sunday though we witnessed the fully-grown Homecoming King doing what he could not do in the ’07 Finals and leading his team to a victory. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski properly captured the importance of the win: “All things considered, this performance lifted his legend.”
It was a performance that showcased LeBron’s refined back-to-the-basket repertoire, his ability to determine the flow of a game even when his shot is not falling and his matureness as an offensive player and a leader. It was a night sealed with an image as iconic as any in his career.
The Spike Game: it will never be forgotten.
Game 3 is tonight, and LeBron will be looking to follow the same blueprint.