Despite facing a considerable disadvantage in depth and overall talent, the injury-depleted Cleveland Cavaliers have a 2-1 series lead over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
LeBron James, the ultimate deciding factor in the NBA, has carried the Cavs by shouldering the offensive burden.
Much of James’ offence has come out of “isolation” plays — one-on-one plays — that are inefficient and often halt a team’s offensive flow.
LeBron has been criticised by many for relying on isolations too often in the postseason, and I’m no exception, having written that James was “hijacking” Cleveland’s offence after he isolated his way to 33% shooting in the fourth quarter of Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks. Going one-on-one not only results in tough shots, it also can take other players out of rhythm as they stand around and watch.
Yet as a significant underdog against the NBA’s best regular season team, James’ isolation-heavy offence has been good enough for a 2-1 series lead. By doing everything himself, James is not only making up for the Cavs’ lack of playmakers, he’s dictating the pace of the game and takings Golden State out of its fast-paced, free-flowing offence. LeBron and the Cavs want to grind out these games, making the Warriors work for everything instead of blowing out the Cavs with what James described as a “sexy” offence.
LeBron’s isolations are not just about scoring points — the Warriors’ defence has held the Cavs to 95 points per 100 possessions, 12 less than their regular season average. By taking his time getting into the offence, holding the ball, and not dribbling until the right moment, the Cavs are slowing the game down incredibly. The two teams are averaging 93 possessions per game in the Finals, which is about seven fewer than what the Warriors averaged in the regular season. This has partially led to the Warriors’ offence averaging only 99 points per 100 possessions, 10 fewer than the regular season.
James’ isos haven’t suddenly become efficient — he’s still only averaging .68 points per possession, shooting 33% on such plays. However, James is so unguaradable on offence that he sucks in defences, opening up opportunities for other players. Almost nobody on the Warriors can stay in front of James, so when he blows by them to the basket, help comes, opening up other Cavs players.
Here, just the threat of James going by Draymond Green causes Golden State to double. As the defence rotates, James hits J.R. Smith for three:
If James takes his game to the post (which is not considered an isolation, but is basically the same idea), nobody can handle his size, so when help comes, he can find open shooters.
Basketball-Reference tracks an advanced stat called “usage percentage,” which measures how many possessions a player uses, factoring in field goal attempts, free throw attempts, and turnovers. LeBron’s usage percentage has never been higher in the postseason:
He’s using nearly half of all of the Cavs’ possessions!
Again, the Cavs’ offence isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders, but it’s been enough to grind out games and support their suddenly dominant defence. ESPN’s Amin Elhassan accurately described how the Cavs are winning on Zach Lowe’s “The Lowe Post”:
“If you’ve got a great offence, you have to have a good enough defence. Right now we’re seeing the opposite. We’re seeing the Cavs have a great defence and a good enough offence. That’s all they need is a good enough offence. … The ball will be with LeBron the maximum amount of time, and when it leaves his hands, it’s going to someone with the explicit purpose of shooting the ball.”
LeBron’s performance in the Finals has been individual greatness personified. The Warriors have thus far been willing to let LeBron dominate by himself, and he’s done enough to carry the Cavaliers on offence while they slow the Warriors on the other end. If LeBron can carry the Cavs to two more wins and take home his third championships, it will likely be the crowning achievement of his career.
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