Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James takes the spotlight.
Context: LeBron James had his ups and downs offensively in Thursday's win against the LA Clippers, but it's hard to think of many times this season that he has been more dialled-in defensively. While he finished the game with only one steal and one block, James put on a defensive masterclass in the fourth and final regular-season meeting between these two teams, using his size to fluster Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on a number of occasions as well as his smarts to shut down a number of plays as a help defender.
Let's take a closer look at one particular possession in which James put his basketball genius on full display.
The play: Midway through the second quarter, James picks off a pass from Patrick Beverley.
Breakdown: Following a pair of made free throws from James, the Clippers run a pindown in the middle of the court for George.
George generates a decent amount of his offence on those plays. According to NBA.com, he's averaging 3.7 points per game off of screens this season, tying him with New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick for the second-most in the league. George has been incredibly efficient as well, ranking in the 85th percentile with an average of 1.14 points per possession off of screens.
Knowing what's coming, it appears as though JR Smith expects Danny Green, who is guarding Leonard in the corner closest to him, to switch onto George to avoid having to navigate his way around Clippers centre Ivica Zubac, who has been one of the league's best screen-setters this season.
The problem? Either Green forgets to switch or Smith isn't meant to switch.
That forces Dwight Howard to leave Zubac at the elbow to prevent George from getting a wide-open 3-point attempt at the top of the perimeter. With nobody guarding him, Zubac wisely slips towards the paint, where he's done basically all of his scoring this season.
Luckily for the Lakers, James is a basketball savant who sees plays unfold before they even happen.
James reads Beverley's pass to Zubac perfectly, deflecting the ball and chasing it down to ignite a fastbreak. (George ended up drawing a charge on James, but we don't have to talk about that).
Why it matters: As I wrote in my observations following the game, James hasn't exactly had the reputation of being the most attentive defender over the last few seasons.
This season has been a different story.
For whatever reason, whether it's the addition of a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Anthony Davis, the addition of a defensive-minded coach in Frank Vogel, a legitimate shot at winning another title or something else, James has bought in defensively this season in a way we haven't seen from him in a long time. It's reflected in almost every single defensive stat you can think of, leading to the Lakers being a whopping 3.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the court, giving him one of the best net ratings on the team.
What's interesting about James is that he rarely guards the opposing team's best player. Based on data collected by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus and Patrick Miller of The BBall Index, he's spent 12.0 percent of his minutes this season guarding No. 1 options. That's slightly more than the time he's spent guarding No. 2 options (8.9 percent) but nothing compared to the amount he's spent guarding tertiary options (79.1 percent). It's freed him up to roam around the court like a free safety, using his basketball IQ to sniff out errant passes, chase down players at the rim and slide over to draw charges.
James has always been able to do those things at a high level - he's made six All-Defensive Teams in his career after all - but again, he's doing them more frequently this season than he has in years past. It was a factor in this game, this particular play being the one that stood out the most to me.
Personally, I think that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the MVP this season and that it's not close, but this is a telling quote from Vogel:
Vogel continued on LeBron's talking on defense: "One of the biggest reasons why I think he's the MVP … when you have the quarterback of the defense and the quarterback of the offense the way he does it, the best in the league, that's the argument right there...- Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) July 25, 2020
That's not to say James can't defend No. 1 options anymore either. Equally as impressive in this game was his man-to-man defence on Leonard and George when he did find himself matched up with them. There was a possession at the end of the first half where James was guarding Leonard in isolation and forced him into a tough pull-up that didn't touch the rim. James then came up with the biggest stop of the game, preventing Leonard from getting a shot off and forcing George into a tough pull-up in the closing seconds to secure the win for the Lakers.
There's still a lot of basketball to be played between now and the NBA Finals, but for the Lakers to be the last team standing, that's the sort of effort they're going to need from their best player. Thursday's win was a perfect example of why. He might be 35 and in his 17th season, but James is still one of the league's scariest defenders when he's locked in.
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