Saturday, February 9, 2013
LeBron just too hot for Clippers
By Brian Windhorst ESPN.com
MIAMI -- Don't buy the hype of this LeBron James four-game hot shooting streak. It's short-sighted and completely lacks the proper perspective.
It's a 47-game hot shooting streak.
Friday night had the potential of being one of those high-intensity regular season games that gets fans thinking about the playoffs. The Los Angeles Clippers had their full roster available for the first time all season, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin made their return from injury and the Miami Heat showed right from the start they intended to play with intensity on this night.
But James smothered the drama, scoring 30 points on just 11 shots (he made nine) in three quarters before sitting down and watching the finishing touches of a 111-89 blowout win in Miami.
While digesting that shooting statistic, consider that James put up 123 points over the last four games on just 59 shots. If you're trying to figure out how that's possible, just know that it means he's barely missed and also hit a bunch of 3-pointers and a bunch of free throws.
Headband or no headband, LeBron had it going against the Clippers.
It's been the hottest shooting week of James' career, but this didn't exactly come out of nowhere. He's in the middle of the most remarkable and efficient shooting season of his 10 years in the league. Friday night, he topped 56 percent shooting on the season, a radical number for a scorer like James.
To put it in some perspective, the best shooting season in Kobe Bryant's career was 47 percent. Kevin Durant, rightly regarded by many as the most talented pure scorer in the game at the moment, is currently at a career high of 52 percent this season. Michael Jordan's best season was 54 percent.
"He's off the planet," said Dwyane Wade, who is having the best shooting season of his career at 51 percent and is still eating James' dust. "He's not even the best player on the planet. He's somewhere else right now -- the galaxy."
The Clippers, like many teams before them this season, just weren't able to keep James from creating space to get good looks or preventing him from getting to his preferred spots. They have indeed been struggling; this was their eighth loss in the past 11 games as both Paul and Griffin looked rusty.
But they are also the fifth-best defensive team in the league and they couldn't contain James.
"If the defense backs up, I shoot. If they get up on me, I drive. If my teammates are open, I find my teammates," James said. "The game flows for me that way. I'm in a comfort place right now where I can just go out and play free."
What's been remarkable with James' recent surge is it doesn't have an obvious root. This is the seventh consecutive season James has increased his shooting percentage, another one of those factoids that sounds reasonable but gets more impressive the more you consider it.
It wasn't like he spent all last summer in the workshop, either. After the playoffs ended in late June, James took a few days off and went right to work with Team USA for preparation for the Olympics before playing through mid-August. Then he had sponsorship commitments in Asia. Then he took some well-earned time off before training camp began.
He got his work in, but it wasn't a summer of putting up 2,000 shots a day or a revamped shooting stroke stemming from extra work with a specialist. This is just James perhaps entering the true prime of his career with his development over the past decade hitting a peak.
But as the shooting keeps getting better, it's a wonder of where the ceiling actually is.
"I'm confident in my ability," James said. "It's great to see when you put in a lot of work and you can put it into a game situation. You're not forcing anything, you're not thinking about it, you're just playing your game. That's what I'm doing right now."
The defending champs are trying to three-peat. The Heat Index.
James is having his best 3-point shooting season, shooting over 40 percent. But where's he's made the biggest strides is shooting close to the basket. According to Hoopdata.com, James is shooting 58 percent on shots between 3 and 9 feet, a sizable jump from the 47 percent clip he shot in that same range last season.
That sort of improvement doesn't come from 3-point shooting contests after practice with Ray Allen, though those have maybe helped, too. James' work on improving his post game, a multi-year process, seems to be paying off. So is his experience level as he's continued to learn how to create for himself.
"He's getting good looks at the rim, our spacing is helping, he's also not letting teams off the hook," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "If he has an angle he's taking it with that space. He's taking shots he's got a high percentage of making. That's the sign of a high basketball IQ player."
This current run -- James is shooting 73 percent over the last four games when he's tied the Heat's franchise record by scoring 30 points in four consecutive games -- has got to come to an end at some point.
But with the All-Star break coming up, it's become clear that what is going on is no fluke. James, already the winner of three Most Valuable Player awards, is simply assembling another brilliant season.
"One day he's going to just shoot 50 percent," Wade said. "We will take it."