Game 2 of the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs was a blowout long before LeBron James' block heard 'round the world. Nevertheless, much like Michael Jordan's twisting, hand-switching layup in a Game 2 blowout of the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals, James' block on Tiago Splitter could be the symbol of a series tide changing following San Antonio's Game 1 victory.
Why a symbol? Because the play was a triumph of incredible athleticism over excellent precision. Were it not for James' block, the story of the possession would have been how the Spurs manufactured a layup with under five seconds on the shot clock. Tony Parker and Splitter ran a perfect pick-and-roll, with Splitter slipping just before Miami's aggressive trapping defense converged. Parker had a split second to deliver the pocket bounce pass, and he did so right on time. Splitter was going to get a dunk. And then James erased it all.
Time will tell if the symbolism lines up with the series result. But how did THE BLOCK happen? Let's take a closer look at the play.
The whole thing starts on a sideline out-of-bounds situation with 14 on the shot clock. The Spurs try to run a Parker/Splitter pick-and-roll with 10 seconds left, but the play is shut off because of poor spacing from Kawhi Leonard. By standing under the basket, Leonard has allowed James to position himself under the rim, preventing a lob pass to Splitter for a layup.
Keep that in mind as we roll the tape forward.
After trying and failing to hit Gary Neal on the left side, the Spurs reset the play and try the Parker/Splitter high pick-and-roll again. This time, Chris Bosh comes out to trap a little too far to his right, giving Parker a tiny window to slip a pocket bounce pass.
That Parker snuck the pass through that gap is a testament to his greatness and the Spurs' pick-and-roll chemistry. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better pocket bounce pass in the playoffs than the one Parker made here. It's only because of that perfect pass that Splitter was even in position to dunk the ball.
But let's get back to Leonard for a second. Rather than spotting up in his customary spot in the corner, he's gone to the rim, perhaps looking for an offensive rebound or a duck-in pass. The problem is that he's allowed James to lurk closer to the rim instead of pulling him away towards the three-point line. What should be a clear dunk for Splitter isn't because of Leonard's spacing.
Leonard is spaced too close to the basket initially, and he compounds the problem by getting even closer as the play progresses. This is where Leonard is standing before Parker throws the pocket bounce pass.
This is where Leonard is standing after Splitter catches the ball and starts to go up.
Leonard has taken several steps closer to the basket as the play develops. Why he does this, I'm not sure. Perhaps he was spooked by his own shooting struggles. Perhaps he figured James would help way off him anyway, as he had most of the game, and being closer to the basket would be a better way to make him pay. Regardless, it's at least in part due to Leonard that James is even in position to make the spectacular block.
Now, the block itself.
While you have to applaud Splitter for going up strong, there are a couple questions I have with his approach. For one thing, he elects to try a one-footed, one-handed jam instead of gathering himself and going up with more power. Here's a screenshot showing his preparation for powering off his right foot.
Going off one foot gives you a speed advantage, but you can lose power unless your lower-body muscles are strong. That's why you usually see it with quick point guards that are slicing through the defense from the top of the key. In that case, getting the ball up to the rim before the shot-blocker rotates over is most important. In this case, though, it may have behooved Splitter to go in stronger. Rather than try to jump off just his right foot, he may have benefited by letting his left foot land closer to his right and jumping off the two feet together. The finish would have been stronger.
It's easy to say that, though, given the benefit of hindsight. Splitter may have been worried about the shot clock going down, and he also may have been too far away from the basket to reach the rim jumping off two feet. It might not have been possible to gather himself and go up with two feet.
The bigger issue was going up with just one hand. There's a reason legendary coach and commentator Hubie Brown always harps on dunking with two hands in traffic. When you go up with one hand, you expose the ball, give the shot-blocker an easy target and have less upper-body power coming down with the dunk. When you go up with two hands, it's harder for the shot-blocker to pinpoint where he should position his hand as he jumps. There's a good chance they hit arm rather than ball, which would be a foul.
Making matters worse, it appears Splitter doesn't have a firm grip on the ball with his one hand.
If Splitter really had a good grip on the ball, it would hang a lot higher. Instead, a good portion of the ball is down by his wrist. That partially explains why there was that loud noise when LeBron made contact with the ball. It wasn't being held in position very well.
From there, LeBron, aided by Splitter going up with one hand, locates the ball and meets Splitter at the rim. The screenshots show just how high LeBron got on his jump.
James' right arm is at least a foot above the rim. Sure, Splitter should have power-dunked rather than going up with one hand. Sure, Leonard should have been in the corner, pulling James away from the rim.
But what player James' size can get that high on a block attempt? That's what made the play so stunning. That's what made the play the kind we'll see on highlight reels for years to come.