With 90 seconds left in the fourth quarter of Monday’s Knicks-Cavaliers thriller, LeBron James found himself isolated against Kristaps Porzingis. New York led by as many as 23 in a wacky game, but Cleveland had clawed their way back into the game and tied it at 97. Now the two teams’ brightest stars faced each other down.
James is one of the greatest scorers the league has ever seen, and there are a hundred different ways he could have attacked Porzingis. But Knicks color commentator Clyde Frazier knew exactly what he was going to do, because James does this so often.
“He’s going to shoot the three from there,” Frazier bellowed. “He likes to shoot the three from this side.”
Frazier was exactly right.
That result should look familiar. James has never had a “signature shot” because he’s never needed one. He’s used Dirk Nowitzki’s one-footed fadeaway, and he has emulated Kobe Bryant with post turnarounds, but he has never relied on a signature move in a certain situation.
Except, maybe, until now.
Don’t ... let James walk into the shot
James is far from the only player who will back up to the half-court line and attack in isolation. Defenders instinctually stay on their heels so the ball handler doesn’t blow right by them.
But James uses that instinct to stick a three-pointer in your face. Myles Turner learned that lesson in the playoffs last year.
Don’t ... go under the screen, either
If you do, this will happen:
Don’t ... let him shoot it deep
Kawhi Leonard is defending him here and it doesn’t matter. James was open, his team needed three points, and he hit them.
Don’t ... forget he will take a step back, too
The 7’3 Porzingis learned this on Monday. He’s not the only victim of the stepback.
These Warriors were still one year away from becoming The Warriors and winning 67 games, and James was still in Miami. Still, even with Andre Iguodala on him, James hopped right back and hit that shot anyway.
Man, Iguodala has some awful James highlights, doesn’t he.
It’s always on the left side of the three-point line
This shot is closer to the top of the key, but it’s still lightly to the left.
This one is the opposite: closer to the corner than the left wing, but still definitely on the left side of the three-point line. (It’s also an impossibly difficult shot that he somehow makes anyway.)
It’s always the left side of the court
The strangest thing: nearly all of these three-pointers come on the left side of the camera angle.
I don’t think James actually recognizes a difference between the two sides, but he might have a preference for which bench he wants to be shooting in front of during the second half of games. More of these games were on the road than at home, so that could be a factor, too.
I really had to dig to find even one instance of James shooting this same shot, but on the right side of the court. I found this shot, a clutch three James hit on the left side of the court, but it’s a catch-and-shoot jumper, not a pull-up one. Not quite the same.
Then I found this.
Yes, this is the stepback three-pointer against a big man on the left wing. It’s not “clutch,” though, since James is actually beating the first quarter buzzer. If James had hit this shot late in a close game, it would have been identical to the ones above.
What do the stats actually say about this shot?
James shoots more left wing threes than any other jump shot, and he hits a better percentage on them. Since the 2013-14 season, James is a 36.7 percent shooter from the left wings, better than shots he takes from straight away and the right wing, with about as many attempts than those two areas combined. It makes sense his clutch numbers would back that up.
James generally shoots worse on three-pointers during “clutch” situations, as defined by NBA.com’s stats page, which is the same for most superstars. However, something about that left-side, stepback three just works so well for him.
The NBA also has statistics on different shot types, and last season, James was 12-of-24 hitting stepback three-pointers. Of course, he was only 2-of-10 the year before that. He has only attempted one so far this season, the shot over Porzingis that he buried.
If we go back to his final season in Miami, James is 21-of-50 (42 percent) on stepback three-pointers, and only 35.3 percent overall on threes.
Don’t let James shoot this shot
Statistically, there are reasons why James hits these shots so frequently: he likes the left wing and he’s good at stepback jumpers. There may be an explanation why it’s always on the left side of the camera, too.
As for the shot itself, there’s nothing you can do. If James can hoist it over Porzingis and get a bucket, then he can get this shot off against anybody. And remember, if you overreact too hard to the jumper, James can blow right by you.
But if you see James on the left side, and the game’s in the final minute, and time’s running down ... don’t say we didn’t warn you.