LeBron James did not play well in the NBA Finals. He played well against the Sixers and had very good series against the Celtics and Bulls to reach the Finals, but he did not play well against the Mavericks. He averaged just 17.8 points per game in the series and only got to the line 20 times in six games. For perspective, LeBron has been to the line at least 20 times in a single game 13 times in his career.
While I defended him for making the most of what the defense gave him early in the series, he had plenty of chances to do more later in the series and he didn’t. He either missed jump shots or did not attack the basket late in games. He lacked aggression and he simply played poorly in the fourth quarter of games.
A lot of people call LeBron James a “choke artist,” but I think that is completely unfair. If LeBron were such a choker, then how did he beat Boston or Chicago? As I’ve said before, you have to win big games to get to big games, and LeBron did that, but he could have done much more. The question is, why didn’t he? I believe I can answer part of that.
When thinking of the best way to explain what went wrong with LeBron in this series, I wanted to relate things to sports fans the best way possible. There is only one analogy that stands out to me: the Mavericks were a bad match up for LeBron, just the same way the Jets were a bad match up for the Patriots.
Would you call Tom Brady a choker? Does he not perform in the clutch? How did his 14-2 team lose to an 11-5 team in the playoffs, while two teams the Pats beat in the regular season ended up in the Super Bowl? It’s all about match ups. The Jets have great defensive backs, pressured Brady, and forced him to take a few yards at a time. They didn’t allow him much and took away what he likes to do best. Does that mean Brady’s a bad player? Does that mean he didn’t deserve his MVP? No, it just means the Jets knew what to do to disrupt him, and most importantly, they had the personnel to execute it.
The same is true with the Mavericks.
Dallas wisely employed a zone defense against the Heat and doubled LeBron James almost any time he brought the ball up the court. That resulted in LeBron passing to open teammates, and it forced the ball out of the hands of one of the Heat’s best scorers. They also did something even more important than double team LeBron: they took away his ability to drive to the hoop, which is his biggest offensive weapon. LeBron has shot over 50% on his field goals the last two seasons, and he’s not doing it on jump shots — it’s mostly layups and dunks. His ability to get to the rack at will is what he does best, and the Mavericks kept him from doing that. They had Tyson Chandler looming in the middle, and his presence along with early double-teams deterred him from driving. LeBron even admitted that was his problem after the game.
When asked what he wasn’t able to do in the Finals, LeBron said “live in the paint.” James also explained what Dallas did defensively on him. “They did a great job every time I drove, they brought an extra defender in front of me. They did a great job defensively, [they're a] very underrated defensive team. They took me out of a lot of things I’m capable of doing and used to doing. They took us out of a lot of things we’re capable of doing, and that’s getting points in the paint and getting to the free throw line, so much respect to them.”
You could tell that LeBron wanted to take over in the fourth quarter and dominate the game the way fans and media implored him to do. He tried to at times, but sometimes he just had to bring the ball back out or pass it because he had three guys on him. And when he did try to force something, he ended up turning the ball over.
LeBron James did not play well in the Finals. He missed far too many shots late in games and that prevented his team from winning. But most of the credit has to go to the defensive schemes employed by the Dallas Mavericks. I’ve never seen an opposing team shut LeBron James down over an entire series the way they did. They had a masterful gameplan and executed at a virtuoso level.
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