SAN ANTONIO -- Could LeBron James become the first player in history to average a triple-double in the Finals?
It’s more than just a historical question; it also is a central factor in how this series might end up playing out. Because the San Antonio Spurs may be just fine with it -- in fact, it might be an indicator that their game plan is working. It’s become clear the Spurs want to use James’ instincts against him, even if that means he gets what they consider meaningless triple-doubles.
Heading into Game 3 Tuesday night, James is just a couple of assists short of that triple-double average (17.5 points, 13 rebounds, 8.5 assists).
Only 10 players have ever averaged a triple-double in a playoff series, and only Jason Kidd (twice) has done it in the past 20 years. It’s never been done in the Finals. Kidd, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain are the only ones to have done it as late as the conference finals.
Move beyond those stat thresholds, though, and understand why James is seeing this surge across the board in numbers. He was “only” averaging six assists per game, for example, in the 16 playoff games heading into the Finals.
The answer is because the Spurs are baiting him into becoming more of a distributor with a defensive strategy aimed at forcing the ball out of his hands. That means assists are going to go up, but it also means the Spurs are making much more inconsistent players such as Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller or Udonis Haslem beat them, or players who are injured or slumping, such as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Simply put, this is a deal the Spurs will take anytime. In Game 2, the Chalmers-Allen-Miller trio got the best of them. When the Spurs got on the plane to head home for a week, though, their heads likely were pretty clear when it came to their defensive game plan. They need to clean up things on offense, especially those turnovers.
But so far, the Spurs are winning in the vital game-within-a-game of how to control James.
There’s also been a major reduction in playing time for expert floor-spacer Shane Battier, which means James is spending significantly more time at power forward and playing closer to the basket, so his rebounding numbers have leapt as well. But it also means the Spurs are able to more comfortably match up because using Kawhi Leonard at power forward on James still allows them to play their best lineups.
In the aftermath of the Heat’s Game 2 blowout win, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked about James’ play.
“He did a fine job,” Popovich said. “He took what was available.”
It was a dry compliment because frankly, the Spurs are thrilled when James does a “fine” job and takes “what’s available.” That means he’s not dominating offensively and imposing his will on the game by breaking down defensive schemes as he’s so accustomed to. Last season when he won the Finals MVP, James averaged 29 points a game. He averaged 29 points in the last round against the Indiana Pacers.
That’s not the James the Spurs want to have to attempt to manage. They are perfectly happy with double-teaming James and making him a passer, even if it does lead to impressive all-around stat lines. They are willing to let him get a few more rebounds because he’s playing more power forward if it means the Heat aren’t successfully able to use the devastating lineup with Battier that saw them cut down 27 consecutive opponents in the regular season.
Already, the game plan is lulling James in at times. By Game 2, when James caught the ball in the post, he waited for the double-team to come so he could pass out of it. When he came off high screens, he was studying where the help was coming from and looking where to deliver the ball, instead of attacking before the defense could move so he would force a foul.
This is exactly the way the Spurs want him to play, even if it means they’re going to give up some open 3-point looks.
“What I do know is sharing the ball is contagious, and it allows everyone to feel involved in the offense,” James said. “For me personally, I know I attract a lot of attention. This team has been set up the right way where when I do attract attention, we have guys that can make plays.”
James is correct; the Heat have been structured to have an antidote to the Spurs' strategy. But the Heat operate at the highest level when passing is one of James’ options, not the main game plan.
“He played solid basketball,” Popovich also said in describing James’ recent play.
A “solid” will not win it for the Heat.