Keeping Score

LeBron’s Big Finals Shot: Don’t Forget He Had Help

Fighting cramps in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, LeBron James hit one of the most clutch buckets in his career. How Oklahoma City's Defense Offered an Assist

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Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images

LeBron James of the Miami Heat makes a 3-point basket late in the fourth quarter against Thabo Sefolosha of the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Four of the 2012 NBA Finals on June 19, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Fla. The Heat won 104-98.

If LeBron James and the Miami Heat win this year’s NBA championship – and it sure seems like they will, as they lead the Oklahoma City Thunder, 3-1, going into Thursday night’s Game 5, in Miami – it may become the signature shot of his career. Returning to the floor after being carried off the court with a leg cramp in the fourth quarter of Game 4, James sank a momentous three-point shot, from the top of the key, with just under three minutes remaining, giving the Heat a 97-94 lead it would never relinquish. The American Airlines Arena exploded. Miami would go on to win, 104-98, and the Heat are on the brink of the title.

When it comes to overcoming injury in the Finals, the “Cramp Game” is now being mentioned in the same conversation as the “Willis Reed Game” and Michael Jordan‘s “Flu Game.”

Here’s the shot, starting around 0:55 below:

Give James credit for an amazing effort. By any definition, the shot was clutch. But here’s what didn’t get enough attention: he had help. If you start the video at 0:59, you will see that with five seconds left on the shot clock, James was at the top of the key, over 30 feet from the basket. Oklahoma City’s Thabo Sefolosha, who was guarding James, was playing off of him. Then, James starts slowly dribbling forward.

That lazy dribble sent a signal to the world: LeBron James was going to shoot a three-pointer. With the shot clock now approaching four seconds, and James moving slowly, he was out of options. Even if James tried to blow by Sefolosha at that point – and remember, James was hobbled, so what were the chances? – plenty of Oklahoma City players were behind Sefolosha to help. With such little time on the shot clock, James would have little time to dish to a teammate.

Although James had only one choice – shoot a three – when he dribbled forward, Sefolosha, remarkably, backed up, giving LeBron room to launch it. Yes, Sefolosha got a hand in James’ face. But Sefolosha needed to move forwards, not backwards, in that circumstance. With Sefolosha closer to James, that shot would have been much more uncomfortable.

Sure, easy for us to say from the sidelines. When you’re guarding a player like LeBron James, under intense pressure, your mind is bound to go racing all over the place. Maybe Sefolosha didn’t know how much time was left on the shot clock. But it’s his job to be aware. Since James was an unimposing 2-11 from three-point range in the series before that shot, maybe conceding the three was a set strategy. Conceding a three when all a player can do is shoot a three, however, is a bad plan.

Given James’ ability, even if Sefolosha had put more pressure on him, LeBron still might have made the shot.

We’re not saying LeBron’s shot doesn’t deserve the accolades. It does. But his signature Finals moment should have been more difficult to pull off.

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