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 forward LeBron James takes the spotlight.
Context: Game 1 of the NBA Finals couldn't have gone much worse for the Miami Heat or much better for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Whereas the Heat cooled off following a hot start and suffered not one, not two, but three injuries, the Lakers were firing on all cylinders following a cold start, leading by as much as 32 points at one point to take Game 1 convincingly.
Anthony Davis made a statement with a game-high 34 points - he tied Elgin Baylor for the third-most points ever scored by a Laker in their Finals debut in the process - but James was spectacular once again, falling an assist shy of a triple-double with 25 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists. And, as always, the four-time MVP's impact was felt far beyond the box score.
There was one particular play in the second half in which James didn't get credit for doing anything despite having his fingerprints all over the possession.
Let's take a closer look.
The play: Davis gets fouled on a dunk attempt.
Breakdown: James brings the ball up the court following a 3-pointer from Jae Crowder.
Surrounding him are Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and Dwight Howard, the five players the Lakers started Game 1 with. James is being guarded by Jimmy Butler, leaving Duncan Robinson to guard Green, Tyler Herro to guard Caldwell-Pope, Crowder to guard Davis and Bam Adebayo to guard Howard.
Caldwell-Pope and Davis park themselves in opposite corners while Green makes his way to the wing and Howard comes to set a screen for James at the top of the perimeter.
James doesn't actually use Howard's screen. Before Howard even makes contact with Butler, James waves him off and calls for a screen from Green instead.
Why? James is mismatch hunting.
The Heat give the matchup James is looking for, switching Robinson onto him and Butler onto Green.
James picks up his dribble and passes the ball to Green but receives it right back.
It's iso time.
James has been picking teams apart in isolation in the playoffs. According to NBA.com, he's generating close to a quarter (22.4 percent) of his offence in isolation and ranks in the 79th percentile with an average of 1.09 points per possession. Neither of those marks are quite at the level of James Harden, who might be the greatest isolation scorer we've ever seen, but they're not far off.
The Lakers space the floor for James by having Green, Caldwell-Pope and Davis spot up on the 3-point line and Howard hang out in the dunker spot.
James blows by Robinson with relative ease and gets into the paint, where he's among the league leaders in scoring in the playoffs. It forces Adebayo to help off of Howard to prevent him from getting all the way to the basket.
James has Crowder's full attention as well.
James kicks it out to Davis in the corner for a 3-pointer that he misses, but pay attention to what happens underneath the basket while the ball is in the air.
You see it? Adebayo has switched onto James and Robinson has switched onto Howard.
Howard isn't the player he once was, and yet one thing that hasn't changed is he's still a handful on the offensive glass. He's among the league leaders with 2.1 offensive rebounds per game in the playoffs, doing so in only 17.4 minutes. He posted similar numbers - 1.6 offensive rebounds in 18.9 minutes per game - in the regular season.
Sure enough, Howard beats Robinson to the offensive rebound. He draws a crowd but finds Davis on a cut with a pinpoint pass, leading to a shooting foul.
Davis makes both free throws to extend the Lakers' lead to 20 points.
Why it matters: Stephen Curry knows how it feels.
The four times the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors faced each other in the Finals in recent years, James picked on Curry relentlessly by calling for whoever he was guarding to set a screen for him in an effort to force a switch. While Curry isn't a bad defender - he's far more capable than his reputation would suggest - he was the weakest defender on those Golden State teams.
Besides, Curry is giving up six inches and 65 pounds to James. Expecting him to be able to keep James out of the paint is ... unrealistic.
In Game 1, James did the exact same thing to Robinson and Tyler Herro, hunting either one of them whenever they were on the court to attack them in isolation. Robinson is only two inches shorter than James, but he's 35 pounds lighter. As for Herro, he's four inches shorter and 55 pounds lighter.
There were times where James used his size advantage to bulldoze his way to the basket against them, resulting in layups or free throws.
And there were times when he set up his teammates for open looks after drawing the attention of multiple defenders:
Again, James didn't get credit for doing anything on this particular possession, but it was him attacking Robinson in isolation that forced the Heat to collapse, which led to Robinson switching onto Howard, which led to an offensive rebound by Howard, which led to a pair of free throws for Davis. Him creating the switch set the dominoes in motion.
What's weird is that the Heat didn't put up much resistance in those situations in Game 1. There were a couple of times in which they doubled James at the point of attack, but there were far more times where they gifted him the switch he wanted. It'll be interesting in Game 2 to see if they switch up their approach, whether it's by doubling him more frequently or hedging rather than outright switching.
Another option? Have whichever one of Robinson and Herro is involved in the screen "tag" James beyond the 3-point line, meaning they jump out at him before recovering to their defender, like this:
Of all the ways the Warriors had Curry defend James in the pick-and-roll in the Finals, that seemed to be the most effective for them.
I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the Heat did actually get a couple of stops on James in isolation in Game 1. Andre Iguodala came up with an impressive block on one particular drive and James missed a layup because of a well-timed rotation by Solomon Hill on another. In general, the Heat seemed to be content with giving him the switch and trusting the helpside defence.
Still, we've seen how this plays out before. You can have the best helpside defence in the world, but if James is able to get the matchup he wants and can consistently get into the paint, it's not usually going to end well for the opposing team.
It certainly didn't end well for the Heat in Game 1. Let's see how the Heat respond in Game 2.
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