Sports

LeBron James Has Turned His Greatest Weakness into a Devastating Strength

The world's best player isn't known for his mid-range jumper, but throughout this postseason his long twos have been as good as anybody's.

CLEVELAND — During the 2013 NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs wisely determined that the best way to thwart LeBron James was to clog up driving lanes and force him to shoot as many two-point jumpers as they possibly could.

Just over 20 percent of all his points (177, to be exact) in that classic seven-game series were earned from the mid-range, which, relative to his other nine Finals appearances, was a career high. The Spurs invited him to shoot by ducking under screens…

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Druh-mah-tick-ah-lee sagging off whenever he had a live dribble…

And baiting him into contested shots when open looks outside the paint were available…

That series followed a regular season in which LeBron drilled 40.7 percent of his threes, and, at 28 years old, appeared to be smack dab in the center of his incomparable prime, void of weaknesses, tap dancing atop every other player’s ceiling. But anything can happen in a confined, high pressure situation, and San Antonio’s defensive strategy, at first, worked like a charm.

After he averaged 29 points on 51 percent shooting against Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron didn’t crack 20 in the first three games of the Finals. But in Game 4, with the Miami Heat trailing 2-1, the sport’s best player finally embraced what Gregg Popovich's cramped terrarium had to offer. He didn’t hesitate and worked through an assertive rhythm, like a classical pianist fingering a flawless routine on a cruise through a hurricane.

The mid-range will never be his first option—“We like that percentage over a dunk, you know?” Golden State Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said. “We try to keep him away from the rim. That’s the hardest thing to do because of his strength and size, so you just have to be able to live with something"—but for a player with more weight on his shoulders than any other, those shots have grown from bashful cameo to treasured guest star.

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LeBron was already Superman without a mid-range shot. With it, he’s now immune to kryptonite, gladly sprinkling it into his morning smoothie. “I’m confident in every part of my game at this point in my career,” LeBron said on Tuesday. “I don’t believe there’s any shots that you can dare me to take and I’m not confident with making them.”

Heading into Game 3, LeBron has taken 120 shots from the mid-range, per NBA.com. He’s made 48.3 percent of them. The league average is 39.2. Kevin Durant is the only player who’s launched more, and among all players who’ve taken at least 20 mid-range shots, Durant, Khris Middleton, and J.J. Redick are the only ones with a higher field goal percentage. All of this is wild.

But even more relevant than how LeBron compares with his peers is how he stacks up against his own resume. Here's a quick look at his volume and accuracy from the mid-range since his first postseason with the Miami Heat:

  • 2011 - 37.4 percent on 115 attempts
  • 2012 - 35.9 percent on 145 attempts
  • 2013 - 37.2 percent on 121 attempts
  • 2014 - 41.7 percent on 96 attempts
  • 2015 - 29.9 percent on 144 attempts
  • 2016 - 37.3 percent on 75 attempts
  • 2017 - 37.3 percent on 59 attempts

In other words, when you fuse his transformation into an angry rhinoceros on drives to the rim with 25-foot range and peerless court vision, this improved in-between game makes 33-year-old LeBron the most formidable and self-sufficient offensive weapon basketball has ever seen.

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“When he's got that shot dropping, there's not much more you can do but stay in front of him and have a good contest,” Tristan Thompson said right after he wrapped his knuckle on a wooden lectern when I asked him about LeBron's startlingly accurate shot. “Hopefully tomorrow he'll get a good home-cooked meal and he'll be ready to go.”

Layups, dunks, and threes are what opposing strategies try to remove from LeBron’s diet, but we’re now at the point where mistakes committed between the arc and paint are also a sin. There is no place to hide. “There were parts of my game that you could disrespect early in my career,” James said after Game 1. “You can't do that now.”

In the play above, Draymond Green correctly sniffs out LeBron's desire to hit Kevin Love on a back cut along the baseline. But as Green slides off Thompson to take that away, Cleveland's center sets a ball screen at the elbow, freeing James for the sliver of daylight he needs.

Drop a big and don't get over the screen in time and James won’t hesitate to make it look like he’s the only man in the gym.

“You just have to take what the defense gives you,” Ty Lue said after Game 1. “I think he's doing a good job of that in these playoffs. Whatever the defense will allow him to have, that's what he's going to take.”

According to NBA.com, LeBron is jacking up way more pull-up twos in the playoffs than he did during the regular season—from 3.5 to 6.3 per game—and he’s also 9.3 percent more accurate. (Compared to last year’s postseason, James’s volume on these shots has leapt from 16.8 to 27.1 percent.) He annihilated the Toronto Raptors in Round 2 by going 19-for-32 from the mid-range (including 10-for-14 on turnaround fadeaways!), hitting one backbreaker after another against a helpless defense that was tactically in the right.

The shot has pulled Cleveland out of tricky situations, and in the fourth quarter it's where he's battered defenses more frequently than any other spot on the court, going an incredible 20-for-34—with 95 percent of those makes unassisted.

A small-sample size mixed with the shot's relative inefficiency poses reasonable doubt in its long-term potency, but for a player who carries LeBron's physical responsibilities—and understands attacking the rim in postseason play can be incredibly taxing/painful—pronounced relief handcuffs itself to a reliable 15 footer.

“It’s been huge for us. Whether it's been off the dribble, whether it's been turning the ball out on the post from the mid range or going over his right and left shoulder, he just has everything in his game and continues to work on his craft at such a high level,” Kevin Love said. “This is my fourth year playing with LeBron. I think teams will try anything. They'll try anything to slow him down and to stop him. But he's been able to continue to add so much to his game and have supreme confidence in what he does in taking the floor. We've seen it all.”

Back in 2013, it was fair to wonder if LeBron had peaked, or at the very least bumped into his limitations. But here we are, five years later, watching a superstar whose main drawback has evolved into an irrepressible flex. The result? Opponents who once exhaled when he shot a long two are now forced to hold their breath.