Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals provided the moment so many of LeBron James' biggest critics have been waiting to see. For years, they've howled at this supposed shortcoming, ignoring all the many things he does so well on the court. They've looked at his natural gifts and demanded he use them in this fashion, even though he had figured out how to be the NBA's most dominant player in other ways.
Wait, you thought I was talking about coming through in the clutch? No, no. I'm talking about James' post-up game.
At 6'9'' and nearly 270 pounds, it's fair to wonder why James hasn't become more of a post-up threat over the years. Part of this frustration is unfair -- given James' unbelievable all-around game, he's successful pretty much wherever he sets up offensively. At the same time, part of it is legitimate too -- given his size advantage over everyone who guards him, James lets defensive players off the hook by letting them guard him far away from the hoop.
But slowly, James has begun to show flashes of an improved post game. In Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals, he finally unleashed it.
From the second quarter on, when the Heat erased the Thunder's early 17-point lead, James parked his butt in the post 14 times. Up until that point, the Thunder had gotten away with defending James with a combination of Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden, both of whom are much smaller and thinner than James. It worked in the first quarter because James wasn't being assertive. From the second quarter on, it didn't work, because James wouldn't let it work.
Here are the results of those 14 post-ups.
- Points scored by LeBron James: 12.
- Points scored by others on James kick-outs: 9.
- Total points: 21.
- Open shots missed by others: 2.
- Free-throw percentage on plays where James was fouled: 50 percent (2 of 4).
- Times when a post-up didn't result in an open shot: 1.
That one non-open shot? It was at the end of the third quarter, when a red-hot James forced a heat-check three-pointer with the shot clock about to expire. Otherwise, it was a brilliant display.
The great thing about James' approach was the way he mixed things up. When he was double-teamed, he accepted them and kicked out to open shooters at the perfect time. When he wasn't double-teamed, he remained patient and got the best shot he could.
However, James knows that Fisher wants him to make that pass. He knows Fisher is in position to recover to close the opening, and he knows that Cole, who isn't a great three-point shooter, is not in rhythm to rise and fire. Therefore, James fakes the pass, goes back to work and makes sure to draw Fisher back to him in a position where Cole is ready to shoot. Observe:
By now, Fisher has fully committed to James and Cole is open. James calmly delivers the one-handed pass, and Cole buries the three.
But James also scored when needed, too. Note the patience he showed on this left-handed layup on the very next possession.
The drive to the baseline ultimately set up the post-up and the lane to the middle. That kind of advanced move/counter move combination is what was missing in James' game in years past. Through a lot of hard work, he's finally added that element to what was already a devastating arsenal.
Magic Johnson, the one-time Lakers legend, used to make a living in the post by the end of his career. He'd use his burly frame to back down opponents, forcing them to pick their poison. If they double-teamed, Johnson would stay patient and use his incredible court vision to pick out open shooters. If they didn't, he would use his strength and developing post moves to score easily. Many have clamored for James to play more like Johnson, and in Game 4, he finally did.
But in many ways, James' feat is more impressive than Johnson's. The rules back in 1989 were far friendlier to post-up players than they are in 2012. Back in the day, if the defense wanted to double team, they had to actually double team. If they went halfway and tried to guard an area to cut off passing lanes, it was an illegal defense. Simply put, there were only a handful of defensive coverages that Johnson had to master to be effective in the post.
Nowadays, though, the rules aren't so strict. When the NBA allowed teams to play zone defense starting in 2002, what really ended up happening was that man-to-man defense fundamentally changed. Help defenders can now position themselves anywhere on the floor, whether their man is near them or not. The only restriction is they can't stay in the key guarding nobody for more than three seconds, but that rule is rarely enforced and doesn't come into play when double-teaming the post.
This makes it really difficult for post players to generate enough space to dominate. In his day, Johnson had to account for two types of defenses: double teams and single coverage. James, though, has to account for an unlimited amount of coverages in addition to those two. Is the wing player zoning up? Is he doing it to the middle? Is he coming to zone before James makes his move or after? Is a big man cheating to cut off the paint, or is he staying at home? Is he cheating before the move or is he waiting until James starts to drive? Is the zone that all four other defenders are playing on the opposite side a real zone, or is it disguised? There's just so much more information for James to process on a given post-up to make the right decision.
And yet, despite all this, James has managed to grow into the dominant post player we all hoped he would.
As the Thunder now know, you can't defend James with a small player anymore and hope to take him out of his comfort zones. He'll get close to the basket one way or another, and he'll find a way to beat any coverage you throw at him.
For more on the Heat, head over to Peninsula Is Mightier and SB Nation Tampa Bay. For Thunder news and notes, visit Welcome To Loud City. And for news, analysis and everything else revolving around the NBA Playoffs, be sure to visit SB Nation's dedicated NBA hub.