After building an 18-point lead early in the fourth quarter, the Cleveland Cavaliers nearly blew their Game 1 win over the Atlanta Hawks.
While the Hawks are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA and put the clamps on the Cavs’ offence in the midst of J.R. Smith’s explosion from three-point range, a big part of the Cavs’ problems was LeBron James’ stagnant offence.
This has been a theme throughout the playoffs: with Kevin Love out for the season and Kyrie Irving hobbled, LeBron is forcing isolations — one-on-one plays with no ball movement — and it’s crippling Cleveland’s offence.
After Cleveland got off to a red-hot start to the fourth quarter, scoring 11 points in two minutes thanks to Smith, LeBron took over and not for the better. Over the final 10 minutes of the game, the Cavs scored 14 points, four of which were free throws in the final seconds when the Hawks were forced to foul.
During that span, James went 3-9 from the field, had one turnover, and nobody on the Cavs, including James, registered an assist.
Part of this was the Hawks’ defence, with forward Paul Millsap pressing James at halfcourt, baiting him into going one-on-one and eating up precious seconds off the clock. Years ago, this would be a nightmare for Atlanta — James would be too quick for the 6’9″ Millsap, could blow by him and attack the basket himself or set up other shooters.
However, at 30 years old, LeBron has lost a step, and several fourth-quarter possessions went like this:
Or this, where James eats more than half the shot clock without a pass:
And while he’s gifted enough to score on this play, nobody would count this as a good possession:
Worse yet are possessions like this, where James uses the entire shot clock, then dumps the ball off on a teammate who has to create something out of nothing with the clock running down:
James knows this is a problem. After the game, he told reporters:
“In fourth quarter, I played way too much isolation basketball, one‑on‑one basketball, a lot of defences set, and I was letting the clock run down way too much. I just had to take the shot or I was giving it to my guys late in the shot clock, and they couldn’t do nothing with it besides shoot it or turn the ball over. So I will do a better job. I’ll probably watch the game over again tonight, as I try to get my body ready for Game 2. So it starts with me.”
While it’s encouraging that James is aware that he played one-on-one too much, this wasn’t a one-game problem. According to NBA.com/Stats, James is leading all players in isolations in the playoffs. He has a league-high 102 isolation possessions, eight more than the second closest player, James Harden, and 58 more than the third closest player, Jamal Crawford. Nearly one-third (32%) of James’ possessions have been isolations.
And LeBron hasn’t been efficient in these plays. He’s averaging just 0.77 points per possession on isolations, ranking him in the 19th percentile of all players. His field goal percentage is down to 33%, and his effective field goal percentage, which weights three-pointers versus two-pointers, is 34.5%.
Another indication that James is going one-on-one too often is the number of dribbles he’s taking before a shot. According to NBA.com/Stats, 30% of LeBron’s shots come after seven or more dribbles.
“[LeBron’s] averaging 11.2 isolations per game, according to Synergy Sports video tracking, which is more than every other player in the NBA by far… And the problem, Bill, here is he’s not athletic enough to do that. He might’ve been able to pull that off in Cleveland five years ago, but this 30-year-old LeBron doesn’t have the athleticism to just power through guys, turn that corner, and get up. So, it’s inefficient, and it’s just bad to watch, and if you’re a teammate, standing in the corner and watching LeBron go one-against-three, like he did against Chicago, that’s gotta be kind of deflating.”
In LeBron’s defence, the options are limited. The Cavs lost their most important floor-spacer in Love, and Irving looks like he shouldn’t even be playing. Wednesday night, Irving clearly had no lift on his jump shot, leading open looks to end up like this:
So with no Love and a hobbled Kyrie, the Cavs’ next best option is J.R. Smith, which is an uncomfortable notion for any team competing for a championship.
This puts a ton on LeBron’s shoulders, so naturally, he’ll feel at times that he has to carry the team. Nonetheless, this is where LeBron’s awkward relationship with David Blatt comes into play. Blatt could attempt to run more creative, fluid plays, but LeBron has shown that he has the power to overrule his coach when it comes to play calling.
James could rely on a number of different plays that are more efficient than his isolations. For instance, he’s averaging 0.80 points per possession and 44% shooting on post-up plays. Against a small Hawks team, James would be wise to post up and try to overpower Atlanta’s defenders, much like he did against Chicago. He’s also been slightly more efficient as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, averaging 0.73 points per possession with a 41.2% effective field goal percentage.
The Cavs are limited in what they can run without a fully healthy squad, but relying on James to take on an entire defence by himself isn’t the answer.
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