Sunday, April 17, 2011
LeBron James: Screening machine
By Kevin Arnovitz
Plays out of timeouts -- or "ATOs" -- can tell you a lot about a team and a coach. When those five guys emerge from the huddle, they stroll back onto the court with a designed play and a series of directives. It's set offense against set defense. The execution of that set might be up to the players, but it's the coach's job to put his team in a position to succeed. Many regard Gregg Popovich as the best "ATO" coach in the game. Earlier this season, Erik Spoelstra credited Doc Rivers' ingenuity coming out of timeouts.
On Saturday night in Game 1 versus Philadelphia, Spoelstra called a simple, but effective, set out of a timeout in the closing minutes of the third quarter. The Heat had one of their small "LeBron Time" lineups on the floor, a unit that didn't get a second of court time together this season: Mike Bibby, Mario Chalmers, James Jones, LeBron James and Joel Anthony. This group was defended man-to-man by Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Andre Iguodala and Marreese Speights, respectively.
There isn't a dizzying array of screens and cuts on the possession, and the right side of the floor is essentially stagnant. But the play provides a window into how much James' role has expanded and diversified within the Heat's offense. LeBron never actually touches the ball, but he does all the grunt work on this play to create a shot for a teammate.
The play begins with a step-up screen on the left side from LeBron for Bibby. While this action is happening, Jones dives to the baseline with Young in tow:
Defenders can't afford to run under a screen for Bibby, otherwise they run the risk of having him stop and pop for a 23-footer -- something he still does better than 98 percent of the NBA. Credit Williams for sticking with him, and Iguodala for staying between LeBron and the basket.
With LeBron retreating low, Bibby dribbles to his right:
Bibby has been a boon for the Heat offensively, but you can imagine how much more lethal the Heat would be with a point guard who's a threat to burst into the paint off the dribble. That's what makes the Wade-James pick-and-roll so lethal. Wade demands a trap, but blitzing him puts a lot of pressure on the back side of the defense. Someone has to pick up LeBron, and that often means leaving a sharpshooter open along the arc.
With Bibby, Philly can play the action straight up, which the Sixers do capably here -- at least until LeBron sets his next screen:
It happens quickly: LeBron moves to the left block while Jones streaks along the baseline from right to left. In the process, he rubs his defender, Young, off LeBron. That action gives him the daylight to spot up on the left side, where Bibby passes him the ball.
So here's LeBron James -- the most brutally efficient perimeter player in basketball -- being used as a traffic cone out of a timeout. And it works seamlessly.
On Sunday, Spoelstra spoke about the process of LeBron going from a small forward to a 1-4 (point guard-power forward) hybrid. "Really what that meant was, 'guard the 4, play the 1 on offense,'" Spoelstra said.
Once James got comfortable with that role, Spoelstra pushed the envelope even further. Ironically, the injury to Chris Bosh was the event that precipitated the next step.
"Once Chris went out, that's when our dynamic changed," Spoelstra said. "I said, 'No, you're the 4. You don't bring the ball up. You don't initiate the offense. You're not the point guard. In fact, there's going to be a point guard on the floor with you.' Probably for the first time in his career, he had to learn a new position and learn new actions."
LeBron's willingness to serve as the heavy on this set results in a wide-open shot for Jones -- a sharpshooter by any measure, but one who needs help creating an open look. Iguodala, who has been guarding James, makes a valiant attempt to close out on Jones, but the 3-point shootout champ's trigger is too quick:
The adjustment has elements of commission (setting picks, posting up off the ball) but, possibly even more challenging, omission (not dominating the ball).
"It took a real open-mindedness on his part to play with the ball not in his hands, and to set a lot of screens, which he's never been asked to do before, and it's really giving us a new dimension," Spoelstra said.
Starting with the loss to Portland, the Heat have exceeded the league average in offensive efficiency in 17 of their past 20 games (the losses against Oklahoma City, Cleveland and Milwaukee are the exceptions). And they're exceeding it by a lot. That streak coincides with three main events: Bosh's commitment to move his game closer to the basket; the integration of Bibby; and the transition Spoelstra is talking about, in which LeBron isn't merely positioned as the team's nominal 4, but actually performing the duties of a traditional power forward.
The Heat are going to need contributions from players like Jones, Bibby, Chalmers and the centers. But few of them can create their own shots. James, Wade and Bosh can help them by drawing double-teams or with drive-and-kicks. But when you've got the body of LeBron James, sometimes a nice cross screen or a pin down will do just fine, thank you.