Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Unstoppable Force Meets the Movable Objects

So, yeah, Lebron Really, Really Can't Be Stopped

The Knicks lost to the Lebroanliers last night at the Garden. LBJ went off for 33 points His team amassed a 26-point lead before a late charge by the Knickerbockers made the final score look respectable. CC Sabathia and assorted Yankees were in the crowd. Jay Z was there. Chris Rock was ripping on Toney Douglas. Charles Oakley was in attendance and looked dashing and terrifying in his all-black ensemble. I was on the couch solo with six High Lifes and a bottle of wine. And a lot of leftover Halloween candy.

There are a lot of issues to talk about with this game but attention must be paid to the shooting display that James put on last night. The reason is twofold. First of all, he's just undeniably unstoppable. His midrange game is leaps and bounds better than it used to be back when his best moves were his leaps and his bounds to the basket. Tonight he was hitting all those contested shots that Kobe has proven so adept at. His third field goal was a three-pointer with Larry Hughes wallpapered all over him. With a hand in his face as he faded slightly away on the jump, James drained the shot. On the way back down the court he smiled, slapped Hughes on the butt and shrugged one of those MJ in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 Finals against the Blazers shrugs. It was just one of those days. Which meant a long night for the Knicks.
As you'll see below, the Knicks did a fine job of covering James (or at least as fine a job as you can) and denying him the paint. Larry Hughes did the bulk of the work and seemed most adept. He played him tight and worked harder than his teammates to deny the ball or at least ensure that James got it far from the rim. Wilson Chandler, Jared Jeffries also guarded him at times and rookies Jordan Hill and Toney Douglas accidentally ended up D-ing him up, too. No matter who was on LBJ, though, most every shot he took was contested. And, shockingly, he didn't register one dunk or layup (although he did hit a falling, floating +1 shot in close that was boxscored as a layup even though I disagree) in the game. And by keeping him out of the painted area, the Knicks were able to hold him to just 7 free throws. Overall, it was the sort of effort against Lebron that should give you a chance to win. You'll take 33 points almost exclusively on 15+ foot jumpshots and no dunks.

The Knicks didn't lose tonight because of their defense on James. Or on any of the Lebronaliers for that matter. Lebron's 33 were hard-earned and from the perimeter while just two of his teammates broke double digits (Boobie Gibson hit for 11 and Mo Williams for 12). Disconcertingly, especially for a D'Antoni-coached team, the Knicks lost this game on offense (but more about that in another post). Let's take a look at each of Lebron's shots to both appreciate how deadlier he is and how well he was actually defended.

James dropped this early-in-the-clock jumper from 22 feet. Hughes had a hand in his face and was defending with an eye toward keeping the King from the paint. This is the sort of shot that you, in theory, "want" LBJ to take. 2-0 in favor of the city that CC Sabathia used to play for before coming to New York.
After assisting on two of the next three Cavs buckets, LBJ went back to the well once more. With Hughes playing off him a bit to defend the penetration, James rose from about the same spot and canned another jump shot.
Having realized that James was content to shoot from the outside if Hughes allowed, the onetime Cavalier got into Lebron hard on this possession, nearly pushing backing him off the court altogether. James faded towards the sideline and away from the rim from beyond the three-point line. Hughes rose with him, faded with him. His arm extended, his hand in James' face, obscuring his view of the rim. But the shot dropped pure from 26 feet.
It's officially a futile enterprise defending this guy. He's got 9 of the Cavs' 18 points and the Knicks have 10. The Knicks can barely keep pace with him, let alone him and four other guys playing together.
He missed! Hughes didn't defend this one any better than previous shots. If anything was different, it may have been that he didn't match LBJ's leap as well as he has shown he can.
Chandler fouls James as he powers his way into the paint and Gallo smothers him and his shot to keep the ball from getting up near the rim. Gallo's authoritative play is heartening. I feel like too many young players don't realize that this play goes even past the whistle.
With Harrington substituted for Hughes, it's Jeffries turn. The former Mr. Basketball in Indiana is on James so tight for this shot that he is nearly invisible in this picture taken from behind the play. Did it matter? Nope. Two more for the tally.
See above.
See above.
This is getting ridiculous. Wth Jeffries all over him and with time ticking down in the first quarter James launches up an off-balance three. Good! The score is 40-21 after one quarter. The Cavs' lead is 19 ponts. Lebron James has scored 19 points. Coincidence?
After Gallo and the suddenly relevant Jordan Hill winnowed the Cavs lead from 25 to 18, LBJ feels compelled to take another shot. But this time he's got the nearly-seven-foot Hill guarding him deep in the corner. Hill is playing really tight but uses the baseline well to keep LBJ from using his speed advantage to blow by him. James rises and tries to shoot over the lengthy hoopcat. Finally. A miss. So maybe seven-footers are long enough to bother James on the outside?
After starting the second quarter on the bench, then hanging along the perimeter and playing the role of distributor upon entering, Lebron finally looked to drive the ball into paint. He got equal-to and then past Chandler at the elbow before the third-year player out of DePal fouled him to send him to the line. LBJ had still yet to touch the rim or get a layup.

And these free throws produced points 18 and 19 in the first half for the King. Not too shabby.

As the announcers discussed, the Knicks had held James without a dunk, layup or even a shot attempt in the paint through two quarters. Yes, he did make almost all of his jumpshots but you still take that every time you can get it.

A 9-0 Knickerbocker run early in the third quarter made the game competitive insofar as it woke up James and Company. After a dunk from Shaq to open the half and three Cleveland turovers, James took matters into his own hands. He got the ball on the left wing, guarded by Hughes, and dribbled towards teammates at the top of the key, looking to shed his defender long enough to get some daylight. Not that daylight had mattered much in the first half.

After Hughes was held up by the scrum at the top of the key, LBJ exploded into the paint. He was a freight train rolling down the tracks and Chris Duhon seemed a damsel in distress tied to the tracks like the heroine in some old-timey Western. Except in this case, his shoulders were squared and his feet were set outside of the restricted area well before the train came through.

This was the prototypical charge scenario. 6-foot-8-inch player comes full steam ahead down the lane, his 250+ pounds knocking a point guard with established position several feet back off his spot. Except that this behemoth was no plodding power forward of olden times. It's the point forward next generation prototype: Lebron James. A charge becomes a blocking foul and LBJ gets two shots from the line. Yes. And yes.

After another bucket by Lee brings the Knicks back within 16 points, 67-51, Lebron again answers. Guarded by Hughes as they come down the floor he runs his old teammate off a screen on the left wing. Chandler switches on to James. Wilson doesn't have the same confidence as Hughes while covering LBJ and is giving him more space.

I'm not sure if Hughes' familiarity with James is what he's got over Chandler or if it's just his confidence. Either way, Chandler is giving James some breathing room. And LBJ is more than happy to "take what the defense gives you." I hear that all the time but this play, really illustrates Lebron doing that.

With Chandler playing him with a few feet of cushion, LBJ takes a few hard dribbles toward the paint. Chandler cedes more ground to keep James in front of him. But the reigning MVP plants his foot, stops, rises and fires. The combination of the initial buffer zone he had and the extra step/second he gained with his drive-pull up gives him one of his most open looks of the night.

But to Chandler's credit he recovers almost immediately and is able to turn his own momentum around and still get a paw in the King's face. Although his look was clear, the shot and follow through were most certainly contested as Chandler's athleticism got him back on James, almost totally making up for his timidity in coverage when James was handling the balll earlier in the possession. Chanlder is a terrific athlete and this saves him against most players in a situation like this. Not here. Not against this opponent.

But Chandler's late recovery doesn't stop this one from being pure. Two points and the Lebronaliers lead is back up to 18.

With Chandler and Hughes barring entry to the interior of the offensive end, Lebron "settles" for another jumpshot. This one isn't true. The King intercepts a poor pass by Lee. The crowd is amped, expecting his first dunk of the night. But Gallo hustles back and intercepts LBJ just inside the three-point line. He barrels into him. Whistle. Play stopped. No dunk. Or at least no dunk that counts. James continues towards rim, rises and slams one home for the amusement of the crowd, but the Garden public address announcer quickly notes "No basket."

On this play, Lebron set up deep in the corner away from the ball. Eventually both Big Z and Andy Varejoa set up on the low block and elbow respectively. LBJ ran Hughes off screens by both bigs as he made his way towards the top of the key and the ball handler. Once he cleared Varejoa he made a hard left back into the paint and towards the rim.

I've watched too many games where Reggie Miller would run off two such screens before turning suddenly to receive the ball and fire up a quick shot. For Reggie, though, both screens would usually be on the blocks as his run would be along the baseline to get his shot from the opposite corner or wing from where he had started the sequence.

But Reggie wasn't built like Willis Reed. James is. So he recieves the pass and takes off for the rim. En route he is met by David Lee, who brings both arms down on James to stop him from getting to hoop. The 250-pounder absorbs the blow, hangs in the air, floating off course (more upcourt towards the benches) but still towards the baseline. He hangs and he pushes the ball up at the goal before coming down. And, it's good. He then dispatches the free throw.
With Chandler draped all over him like one of my ill-fitting $100 suits from Target, Lebron didn't get this 22-footer down.LBJ got himself back into the paint after beating Toney Douglas who was ended up covering him as the team came down the floor. Our No. 23 played their No. 23 way too tight way too far from the rim and LBJ blew by him. He was soon swarmed by three Knicks. Chandler fouled him low and Harrington went up high to block the shot and make sure that this wasn't a +1 situation. Again, though, there was nothing easy. Even with the Knicks trailing 77-58 in the waning seconds of the third quarter they are not surrendering to James, who hits one of two free throws.18 feet from the rim. Inches from Hughes. This time the ball doesn't fall true. A miss. Not that this picture looks any different from the ones where he scores. To further minimize the impact of the defense, it could be argued that he missed this shot because it's the first one he took after a few minutes on the bench to start the fourth quarter.
Another 19-footer from the wing, with a Hughes in his front pocket drops for 30 and 31.
Lebron came across the court and took this fading running jumper as his momentum carried him towards the Knicks bench on plane and away from the hoop on the other. It was a tough shot, Chandler was contesting as well as one could but the ball got up about the rim with a softness and bounced through the net for points 32 and 33. Game over.

Even though he didn't hit 50 points or notch another triple double I'm thoroughly impressed by Lebron James. He is at the point where he still gets 30 when you stick to your defensive gameplan on him, which I think the Knicks actually did tonight. They deserve some credit for that and LBJ deserves even more for being impervious to their efforts. He is one of a kind. Not since Bernard King have the Knicks had such a gifted scorer. And that's not even talking about all of the other superlative facets of Lebron's game.

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