Thursday, June 9, 2011
NBA Finals Game 5: Five things to watch
By Kevin Arnovitz and Tom Haberstroh
From the Miami perspective, there's one dominant storyline headed into Game 5: What is going on with LeBron James? In today's "5 Things," we focus on prescriptions. What do James and the Heat need to do to get James going?
Here are five suggestions:
Why isn't James attacking more? Why do the Mavericks send a double-team when Jason Kidd is guarding James? Because it’s an incredibly unfair one-on-one matchup for the 38-year-old. But the funny thing is that James doesn’t seem to realize it.
In Game 4, when James caught the ball in a post-up or isolation against Kidd, who stands 6-foot-4, James waited … and waited … and waited for the double-team to come. Instead, he should have the mindset to attack, attack, attack when a mini-Juwan Howard attempts to guard him. Considering James’ size and athleticism, Kidd should be roadkill in the half court, but somehow the Mavericks point guard has managed to be a spike strip in front of James.
James will tell you he isn’t attacking right away -- called a "quick attack" in coaching circles -- in these situations because he wants to facilitate and get his teammates involved when the help comes. That’s a perfectly acceptable and rational response at some junctures, but not 100 percent of the time. Right now, James is playing nice to a fault.
Whether it’s turning the corner on a pick-and-roll or simply exploding off the block, James needs to show us that he’s firmly in attack mode if he wants the Heat to take control of this series. There’s no more time to waste. As James tweeted early Thursday morning, “It’s now or never.”
Will Erik Spoelstra find some minutes on the bench for LeBron? The past couple of seasons in Cleveland, the Cavaliers had such a comfortable cushion atop the standings that they were able to rest James headed into the playoffs with little consequence. The Heat didn't have that luxury in early April this season.
With Dwyane Wade and Mike Miller ailing, Spoelstra consistently played James in excess of 40 minutes, even calling on the superstar to log 43 minutes in a 19-point blowout loss to Minnesota on April 1. Were the Heat fools to assign that kind of workload to James, knowing they'd want him fully energized for what they hoped would be an extended playoff run into June?
With the media circus swirling in Dallas for the Finals, James knows better than to offer casual suggestions of fatigue. All he essentially said Wednesday was that a few minutes of rest can't hurt.
"You can always use -- if you can get a minute or two minutes there, it helps anyone," James said. "It would help me as well."
There's never a convenient time to lift your most dominant threats from the lineup in favor of a less potent player, but Spoelstra might not have a choice in Game 5.
Should we being seeing more of LeBron at the power forward slot? Spoelstra has been reluctant to go to smaller lineups this series, though for two very brief stints during the second quarter in Game 4, we saw James log his first minutes at the 4 in this series.
Sixers coach Doug Collins has always maintained that the power forward was James' natural position. Before his team's first-round series against the Heat, Collins called James "a monster" at the power forward. "You can’t guard him," Collins said. "And he's big enough to guard you. He's bigger than Karl Malone because he's got speed and quickness and power and grace and agility and skill. So when they go small -- and that’s what you’re going to see in the playoffs, as much as Chris Bosh probably doesn’t want to play the 5, when they put Wade out there and LeBron at the 4 and Bosh and a couple of other guys who can shoot that ball -- they’re tough.”
The numbers back Collins up. As has been the pattern over the past few seasons, James' production when he was at the power forward position this season were mind-blowing. He recorded a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 37.1. His effective field goal percentage jumped from 53.2 percent to 57.5 percent. Curiously, his assist rate also ticked upward when he manned the 4.
Could this be a tactical move that gets James going? Would setting up closer to the hoop and finding opportunities in what Spoelstra refers to as the "Karl Malone" area at the foul-line extended move James away from the weakside corner where he's been loitering aimlessly? Would getting another shooter on the floor and moving Bosh to the 5 for stretches decongest the Heat's half-court offense and provide more seams and angles for James to attack?
The likely answer to all these questions is yes. That's not to say that sliding LeBron to the 4 wouldn't have adverse effects on the glass. But Miller and Wade are among the best wing rebounders in the game. In addition, Bosh would have his hands full trying to move Chandler underneath the hoop on both ends. But when Chandler checks out for his rest, the Heat should immediately mobilize themselves and go to the LeBron-at-the-4 lineup.
Given James' alarming slump, it's time to break the glass -- even though such a scheme isn't all that radical.
Did James forget he's a train in the open court? Remember James’ thunderous fast-break slam in Game 4? Trick question -- it didn’t happen.
The truth is that James only tallied one fast-break bucket in Game 4, and it was a light two-handed dunk on which he barely touched the rim. That’s not James’ game, and he’s aware of it.
“I have to be more aggressive,” James said at Wednesday’s practice. “Even if that takes for me getting out in the open court sometimes, getting the rebound, getting out in the open court where I'm at my best.”
The call for James to be more aggressive extends beyond the half court. One of the most terrifying experiences for Heat opponents is seeing a two-on-one fast break developing with Wade and James. Absent in Game 4 was the open-court magic between these two even though it has been an essential part of their playoff routine.
Maybe James needs to remind himself that no one can stop him – or slow him down for that matter -- once he gets a full head full of steam. There’s not a player on the Mavericks roster who has the athleticism to keep up with him, but he’s playing like his emergency brake is on. According to Synergy Sports, James ranked first (with Wade) in the regular season in transition points per game, but you wouldn’t know that by watching Game 4. Time for him to step on the gas.
Can the Heat re-establish that Wade-James synergy that carried them through the spring? After Wade struggled during Chicago series and in Game 1 of the Finals, James played a pivotal role in helping his counterpart emerge from that slump.
As the Heat's primary playmaker, James was constantly on the lookout for Wade, rarely missing an opportunity to get watch a pitch-and-drive on the weak side or streaking across the baseline.
Now's the time for Wade to come to the aid of his comrade. Getting James back into the flow of the offense will require more than just one-on-one basket attacks by James.
The Heat need to return to that lethal Wade-James pick-and-roll -- and not just the half-hearted version in which James dances for a few seconds, then slips a couple of feet toward the foul line. We're talking about rev-up-the-engine dives to the hoop that draw the defenses in. At that point, James has a bevy of options, even with Chandler guarding the basket.
James has spent so much time as the trigger man on actions designed to get Wade the ball -- and has done so effectively dating back to Game 3 of the Chicago series. But now's the time for Wade to return the favor. And it's incumbent on the Heat's coaching staff to draw up those schemes.