During last year’s NBA Finals, LeBron James’ unwillingness to attack the rim was baffling. Here was the most physical force in basketball, a 6’8″, 250-pound bundle of muscle, lounging 25-feet from the basket during so many possessions.
For a player as strong as LeBron James, who jumps as high as LeBron James, who is as skilled with the ball around the basket as LeBron James, the formula would seem to be simple: go to the hole, let the defense bounce off of you, and find an easy angle to the basket.
His habits have changed this year. The result: James looks poised to win his first championship, while throwing a thunderous elbow at his critics who questioned his resolve to win the title.
Just look at the numbers from the past two Finals games, both Miami Heat victories. (Miami leads the series 2-1, Game 4 is in Miami on Tuesday). In Game 2, James took six shots in the “paint” – generally defined as the area within the foul lane – and made four of them. He was terrific in the first quarter of Sunday night’s Game 3 too, shooting 4-5 in the paint. In both games, James sent a message to the Oklahoma City Thunder: I’ll be going to the basket, just try and stop me (James scored at least 20 points for the 20th time this postseason Sunday).
Overall, James is shooting 18-31 in the paint during the last two games. When James goes to the hoops, he’s also more likely to get fouled: in Game 2, for example, he was a perfect 12-12 from the stripe. He’s only shooting 3-14 from the outside. Miami’s outside shooting, in fact, has gone ice cold: in Sunday night’s Game 3, a 91-85 Miami victory, the Heat shot 5 for 31 from outside the paint. (The Heat need to thank Shane Battier, who is primarily known as a defensive specialist: he’s 11-15 from three-point range in the series).
Are James and his teammates going to the hoop because they’re having trouble making longer shots? Maybe. But at some point, James is bound to get his outside shot going. If Miami can still beat Oklahoma City while misfiring from outside, this series might be rough for the Thunder.