Where do I even begin? LeBron James has become one of the most mystifying figures in NBA playoffs history. After “conquering his demons” in 2012’s storybook run to a championship (seriously, the 7 game comeback against Boston + the vanquishing of rival Kevin Durant), LeBron James returned to the 2013 Finals with a thirst for revenge on the Spurs who foiled his first championship appearance in 2007. Back in 2007, 22-year-old LeBron had not mastered his outside shot like the 56% FG/40% 3P machine we saw this season. Surrounded by an undeniably weak supporting cast, LeBron was forced into one tough jumper after another as the Spurs gave him all the room in the world, daring James to beat them with jumpshots. LeBron failed, shooting 35.6% on over 22 shot attempts per game.
Flash forward six years, four MVPs, two gold medals and a championship ring later, and the Spurs are still defending the best player in the world the same way: by treating him like Rajon Rondo. Somehow, some way, it’s working. Much like Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Maverick’s hybrid zone scheme in 2011, the Spurs are making James uncomfortable and confusing him with their defensive looks. In 2011, James collapsed beneath the pressure. Stumped by all the defenders in his way, James became far too passive, even scoring just eight points in one 2011 Finals loss. After the Mavs dispatched of Miami in six, LeBron vowed to get better and his promise held true. In 2012, we saw a more focused, efficient and intelligent James, culminating in an MVP, Finals MVP and gold medal. James became unstoppable in the post, cut down on his three point attempts, and most importantly, did not wilt under the pressure of the Finals. Instead, he notched a triple double in the clinching Game 5 while icing the series with a cold-blooded three pointer–all while playing with leg cramps bad enough to momentarily take him from the game.
So what’s stopping James from dominating in 2013? The Spurs (4-0 in the Finals in franchise history) are gladly giving James every open look he desires outside the paint. The difference between this season’s Finals and 2011’s is the style James is attacking the defense. In 2011, LeBron simply stopped attacking and allowed Dwyane Wade to take over. Ultimately, Wade put up Finals MVP type numbers but Dirk and the Dirkettes were just too much. This season, with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh looking like shells of their former selves, James has had no choice. LeBron has taken 18 shots per game thus far compared to the 15 he averaged in 2011. In Game 3, LeBron was 2/14 from outside the paint and 5/7 inside of it. For whatever reason, the shots that LeBron had finally perfected are no longer falling. You have to start wondering if the Spurs have found a way under LeBron’s skin. The emotionless, point-scoring machine of 2012 has disappeared in lieu of an unconfident, confused and clanking King James. By playing James the same way he was defended in 2007 and 2011, Greg Popovich and San Antonio are telling LeBron that they don’t respect the improvements he’s made to his game. Inexplicably, this strategy has worked, yielding a 2-1 series lead for the Spurs and yet another nationwide eulogy for Miami (remember the Indiana and Boston series last year?).
Luckily for James, there’s still plenty of basketball left to be played. LeBron has the easiest adjustment out of anyone: start knocking down the shots he knows he can make. Unless LeBron is quietly nursing a significant injury, I see no reason why he won’t bounce back and start knocking down jumpers. 2012 was far too dominant of a year for King James not to believe in himself enough to make wide open jumpshots. I’m expecting a team result closer to Game 2 tonight, and for the real King James to please stand up.