Sunday Shootaround

What it's like to play with LeBron James

by Paul Flannery

BOSTON — In the frenzied late-game rush of a playoff-like atmosphere, few things are more valuable than a clear head and a keen understanding of the court. When you combine those attributes with superior talent, you provide yourself with an opportunity to win the game. That doesn’t mean the shot will fall or the play will work. But chances are you will at least get a good look, if not the best possible look in that situation.

That has always been LeBron James’ calling card in late-game scenarios. While other superstars are predisposed to put the game on their shoulders and their shoulders alone, James has long preferred to seek out the best possible chance at a bucket, whether it be his or someone else’s. LeBron used to take criticism for this, but those days are all but over. In all the many ways he has outlasted his critics, his end-of-game plan is one of the most enduring.

It would have been far easier for LeBron to try to do the impossible because the calculus is much simpler. Succeed and you’re a hero. Fail and at least you died valiantly. Yet, for as much iron will as it requires to put the game in your hands, it requires even more to trust your read, your teammates, and then be able to live with the consequences knowing the responsibility is still yours alone.

We saw yet another example of this on Wednesday with the Celtics clinging to a two-point lead and mere seconds left on the clock. A few minutes after it was over and before he had even hit the showers, LeBron took the assembled media through his mental rolodex with striking precision.

The Cavs had scored on their previous possession thanks to a brilliant twisting layup by Kyrie Irving. That phenomenal finish was made possible by a Boston switch that put Al Horford in the unenviable position of guarding the much quicker Irving. It was that very scenario that LeBron and the Cavs wanted again. Only this time the Celtics didn’t switch, leaving Avery Bradley on Irving.

For several fraught moments the two battled for an opening. Irving went to work with his dribble, but Bradley matched him stride for stride and move for move. It was thrilling one-on-one basketball at its highest level, contested between one of the great ballhandlers and one of the most fluid on-ball defenders. This was the game distilled to its very essence.

With the tension rising in the Garden, Bradley held his ground, forcing Irving into a tough jump shot. That was a win for Bradley, but the look was perfectly acceptable and indeed would have been the normal course of events on almost every other team in the league. After all, if anyone has earned the right to play hero, it was Irving, who drained the iconic shot of last year’s Finals. What makes the Cavs so dangerous is they don’t have to settle.

As Tristan Thompson kept the possession alive with an offensive rebound and kicked it out to LeBron, it was time to recalibrate: see the floor, make the right correct read, seconds melting off the clock. James saw Jae Crowder run at him. Then Isaiah Thomas made a dash in his direction.

That meant somebody was open and that someone happened to be Deron Williams, who also happened to be making his Cavs debut after signing earlier in the week. LeBron whipped a pass that only he can make and D-Will lined up an open three.

That Williams was on the far side of the court, alone in the opposite corner, indicated that the C’s had executed their double team strategy. That it came against LeBron meant that it didn’t matter.

It also didn’t matter that Williams had been his teammate for all of 23 minutes. It didn’t even matter to LeBron that he missed. Williams was open so he got the ball.

“Gave him the opportunity and he just missed it,” James said dispassionately after running through the entire scenario. “So, we got the shot we wanted.”

That James made the right play is second nature, of course. But to his teammates, many of them veterans from other teams, it means everything. They have seen their careers either extended or completely blossom playing with LeBron. That is not an accident.

This season alone, Derrick Williams has found a home after bouncing around the league. Kyle Korver arrived from Atlanta and has made over 50 percent of his 3-point attempts since joining the Cavs. They are merely the latest in a long line of imports brought to the roster by GM David Griffin, who has mastered the art of finding veteran help from the leftover scraps of what remains of his assets.

Last year, Richard Jefferson found a third wind to his basketball life. Channing Frye became a postseason star. The year before brought J.R. Smith, who went from mercurial head case to Finals hero, and Iman Shumpert, who has been a vital role player. Even those who leave Cleveland benefit from their time next to James as evidenced by Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova landing massive free agent deals. Playing with LeBron has its perks.

When you are making a case for the best player in the league there are several critical items to parse. How do they rate statistically against their peers, how important are they to the success of their team, how meaningful is it when they’re not on the court? But there’s another way to judge: How do they make their teammates better?

What superstars do is make everyone’s life easier. They demand the kind of defensive attention that leads to double teams and that allows teammates to thrive in their roles and not have to do things that stretch their abilities.

“He is numero uno when it comes to making players around him better,” Korver said. “He obviously puts you in situations to succeed, but he just exudes confidence. How he talks to you: He’s intense, he’s fired up. He just breeds confidence in the guys. The situations he puts you in because of his skill level and then his personality and his leadership, it just elevates guys around him.”

Korver was a focal point of Atlanta’s offense in a way that he’s not in Cleveland. Lacking elite one-on-one talent, the Hawks smartly used what they had and in Korver they had one of the game’s great shooters. They put him in motion and ran him off screens, bringing defenders with him and opening up the game for his teammates.

It worked beautifully for a time, but it also took an enormous physical toll. There was some concern that at after 13 years in the league, Korver was finally slowing down. But he has been rejuvenated playing with LeBron. Where he once ran baseline-to-baseline and back again, now Korver merely has to be present. It’s not just the attention that James commands, it’s the willingness and the ability to make passes that no one else can make.

“The defender doesn’t have to be far away from you for him to feel like you’re open,” Korver said. “He’s OK with firing one at you if he feels like you’re open, not if everyone else will think that you’re open.”

There are other less tangible elements at play in the equation. There’s leadership, of course, which is not always so easy to diagnose. For as much attention as LeBron draws for his occasionally impetuous remarks, what impressed Derrick Williams was seeing how much effort LeBron puts into his craft.

“He just brings it every single day,” Williams said. “Sometimes when you have star caliber players like that it can vary, but he’s really big on bringing it every single day. His work ethic spreads throughout this whole locker room.”

That sets a high standard and woe to the player who doesn’t meet that requirement. For the right player at the right time in their career, playing with LeBron is like reaching nirvana.

“If you compete and play basketball the right way he’ll be one of the great teammates you’ll ever have,” Jefferson said. “That’s what he prides himself on, is high level competition and guys playing the right way. He works extremely hard and the guys we bring in here follow in that same mold so that’s not hard for guys to pick up on.”

Back to that Deron Williams shot. Considering they had just lost a tough game against their closest conference challenger, one might have expected to find a dour locker room scene. Instead the Cavs were loose and still buzzing off the competitive high. In that they took their cue once again from the leader.

“Good game, executed well by both teams,” James said. “They made a couple more shots than we did down the stretch. Nothing bad about tonight.”

They know that there will be many more nights like this in the months ahead with much higher stakes. They know they have work to do to fully integrate all of the new players that arrived for the stretch run. A daunting March schedule awaits. But they also know that they have LeBron and there will be many more opportunities to rise to the moment at hand.

“Everyone thought that shot went down,” Jefferson said. “We all thought it was good. Great look. We’d have him shoot that shot a million times in a row. So, next time it drops.”

That’s what it’s like to play with LeBron James.

The List Consumable NBA Thoughts

Having lived through the great Troy Murphy chase of 2011, I tend to take a dim view of buyout season. But there are a couple of big names on hand who may play a pivotal role in the postseason.

Deron Williams

In fulfilling LeBron James’ demand for another effing playmaker, GM David Griffin landed the best veteran free agent on the board. D-Will is no longer the elite point guard he was in Utah, but he still offers shooting, playmaking and the ability to run a team. A pairing with Kyrie Irving offers yet another look for a Cavs team is suddenly versatile and deep. Just as important, D-Will also provides quality depth and should allow the Cavs to keep their All-Star fresh down the stretch run.

Andrew Bogut

He’s only played 26 games and his numbers were in sharp decline in Dallas, but he’s a rim-protecting enforcer with veteran savvy and underrated offensive skills. Those guys are hard to find, especially on the waiver wire. In choosing the Cavs’ championship chase over Boston (role) and Houston (money), Bogut threw down the proverbial gauntlet against his former team. The Cavs’ frontline is crowded and plays better in smaller configurations so we’ll see if Bogut has much of a chance to throw ‘bows too.

Matt Barnes

At this point in his career, Barnes is known more for his on-court nastiness and off-court issues than being a productive NBA player. He’s been in decline for the last two years and his shooting has fallen off a cliff. Still, Barnes will see all the open looks he can handle in Golden State and he certainly brings an edge to a team that will see all manner of physical play in the postseason. The Dubs now have David West, Zaza Pachulia, and Barnes on the roster. That’s enough edge.

Brandon Jennings

Hey look, it’s another Knick scapegoat who wasn’t the problem. Jennings is a pick-and-roll playmaker with a wonky shot who is probably better served coming off the bench. He’s found the ideal spot in Washington backing up John Wall. There’s not many minutes there, but there is ample opportunity to bolster a Wizards’ bench that has been a tick better than disastrous this season. Jennings is also the proverbial streaky scorer who might win you a playoff game with a hot shooting night. See his absurd rookie run with Milwaukee.

Terrence Jones

Here we have an athletic 25-year-old power forward who can get you 10-and-5 most nights and it took him almost a week to get a job with the Bucks after being waived by New Orleans. While it’s true that Jones isn’t a stretch-four by any, um, stretch of the imagination, the lack of interest around him was still curious. Jones wanted a situation that allowed for more playing time and a bigger role, and it’s hard to blame him considering he was on a minimum deal with the Pelicans after striking out in free agency.

By The Numbers The stats that explain the week


Triple-doubles recorded by Denver center Nikola Jokic this week, resulting in a pair of road victories. Jokic is the real deal, providing scoring, rebounding, and brilliant passing for a Nuggets club that appears to be hitting its stride. They’ve already built a nice cushion in the race for the final playoff spot in the West and have eight of their next nine at home beginning with Saturday’s tilt against the Kings. Who knew when the season began that Jokic would be the breakout performer among the young big man set?


Having played for four teams in four years, the 27-year-old Dewayne Dedmon is a classic journeyman big man. Naturally, he’s found a home on the San Antonio Spurs as a backline anchor on the league’s stingiest defense. This is so Spurs. They’ve allowed just those 95.1 points per 100 possessions when Dedmon’s on the court and 103.2 when he’s not. Dedmon has remained in the starting lineup even with Pau Gasol back from injury and the Spurs are lurking ever dangerously.


With Kyle Lowry out of the lineup, DeMar DeRozan scored 113 points in the first three games since the All-Star break and the Raps won all three. That’s both insane and not sustainable. Sure enough, he had a rougher night in a loss to the Wizards. Throughout the season, DeRozan’s shooting percentages have declined whenever Lowry isn’t on the court except in the mid-range where he thrives. He’ll have to keep producing at an elite clip for the Raptors to stay in the race for a top-three seed.


That’s the potential price tag (in millions) for Utah point guard George Hill over the next four years if he signs a max deal this summer. The Jazz attempted to lock Hill up with an extension that would have paid him north of $88 million over the next three years, but those talks broke off this week before the deadline for extensions, per ESPN’s Tim McMahon. Hill’s contributions have always been greater than they appear in the box score, and he’s been brilliant for Utah this season when he’s been healthy. With Hill and Gordon Hayward hitting free agency, the Jazz have some decisions to make.


Is that enough minutes to qualify Joel Embiid for the Rookie of the Year award? No other rookie has made the kind of impact that Embiid has, but those minutes will look a lot lower by the time the season ends. That’s a fun parlor game, but the real issue for Embiid and the 76ers is that they are now three years into his rookie contract and those 786 minutes are all they have to show for it.

Say What? Ramblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

“Magic’s always been somewhat an idol in the sense of what he accomplished and what he’s done not just on the court but what he’s done (off) the court business-wise. Hopefully that will transfer. Hopefully he’ll be very successful. I’m one of those people that believe that having big teams in big cities is important for the league. Sure, we all want to win. But the bigger picture is big teams in big cities is good for everybody.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

Reaction: No one packs more into a quote than Pop. For starters, he’s right that if anyone has earned the benefit of the doubt to step into management it’s Magic freaking Johnson. Second, I’m not as convinced that the success of large markets is as important as it used to be in the NBA. However, it is undeniable that when large markets are also good it takes the league into a different stratosphere.

“That’s probably the best we played and the best continuity … that we had. We looked like we liked each other.”

Wizards guard Bradley Beal.

Reaction: Beal was joking and it’s easy to crack wise when you’re rolling like he and the Wizards have been lately. Now comes the hard part. The Wiz have a heavy March schedule loaded with a dozen road contests, nine game against playoff teams, and six back-to-backs. If they survive the month in one of the top three seeds they’ll be well-positioned to play spoiler in the East.

“He is the first person I’ve ever seen teach the basic elements of pick-and-roll differently. With them, their best plays, they don’t screen. He’s the first person in this league to teach it like that. It makes the pick-and-roll quicker and for a lot of guys, it’s a much better way to play.”

Charlotte coach Steve Clifford on Mike D’Antoni’s offense.

Reaction: The Rockets are currently averaging over 40 threes and are inching past 50 most nights since Lou Williams arrived. Good thing too because they are 43-3 when they made 12 or more in a game. Fascinating stuff on how they do it from Houston Chronicle beat writer Jonathan Feigen.

“We will change it by next year. It shouldn’t be playoff intensity, but the guys should be playing.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on the All-Star Game.

Reaction: The All-Star Game has been a snooze for a while so all suggestions are welcome. It’s just hard to incentivize an exhibition without meaning.

“I knew I was going to get a hard foul at a point in the game. I just wanted a chance at getting somebody back. That’s just how it goes. Anybody who knows basketball, that’s how it goes, especially Vince. He’s played back in the day. He’s been through that.”

Phoenix guard Devin Booker after catching an elbow from Vince Carter.

Reaction: You’ve got to respect your elders, young man.

Vid of the Week Further explanation unnessecary