With less than 40 seconds remaining in a two-point game, LeBron James got the mismatch he was looking for. J.R. Smith had just set a screen to get JaMychal Green off him, and Dillon Brooks, a rookie selected with the No. 45 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, switched onto him. From there, James went into attack mode, putting the ball on the floor, absorbing contact from Brooks and using his height advantage to finish over him in isolation for his 31st point of the night.
James did the same thing to Brooks on the previous possession. He then tried to do it again on the final possession of the game for the Cavaliers, but JaMychal Green wouldn’t allow it. Not that it mattered. James still managed to create the space he needed against Green to secure Cleveland’s 11th consecutive victory with a stepback jumper from just inside the perimeter.
The Grizzlies aren’t the only team James has picked apart down the stretch of a game this season. In 61 clutch minutes — defined as the final five minutes of a five point game on NBA.com — James has scored a total of 81 points over the course of 16 games. He’s one of only three players to have scored at least 50 points in the clutch so far this season, the others being Damian Lillard (61 points in 67 minutes) and Kyrie Irving (77 points in 53 minutes).
To put it into perspective, James is averaging 27.3 points, 8.7 assists and 7.9 rebounds per 36 minutes this season. Those numbers skyrocket to 47.6 points, 14.7 rebounds and 8.8 assists per 36 minutes based on what he’s been able to do in crunch time. It’s helped the Cavaliers outscore opponents by 40 points in the 61 minutes he’s been on the floor, which has translated into 11 wins and only five losses.
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James has been incredibly efficient in those situations, too. He is currently shooting 57.4 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from the perimeter in the closing minutes of tightly contested games. The one area he is struggling from is the free throw line, where he has converted 12 of his 21 attempts. The combination still gives him a true shooting percentage equivalent to Anthony Davis (64.4 percent), Stephen Curry (64.3 percent) and James Harden (63.4 percent).
A lot of those points come in similar fashion for James, starting with him calling for a screen from whoever is being guarded by the weakest or least mobile defender on the opposing team. In this particular case, it’s Jae Crowder being guarded by the 39-year-old Dirk Nowitzki.
That player then sets a screen on James in an attempt to create a switch. If successful, James dribbles the ball out to the 3-point line and turns the possession into a straightforward isolation. Those plays have made up 24.3 percent of James’ scoring this season, and he ranks in the 86.7 percentile with an average of 1.14 points per isolation possession. There isn’t anybody who can stay in front of him in isolation, which gives players like Nowitzki absolutely no hope.
Making it more difficult for the chosen defender is the Cavaliers put him on an island. The Cavaliers who have logged the most clutch minutes with James this season are J.R. Smith (50), Kyle Korver (50), Kevin Love (43) and Dwyane Wade (39). Wade is the only one of them who doesn’t have the reputation of being a 3-point shooter, but he’s a good enough scorer and cutter for defenses to respect him outside of the paint. The Cavaliers can therefore play five-out to give James all the space he needs to make a play for himself going toward the basket.
What separates James from other isolation scorers is his comfort scoring in a variety of ways. A player like Nowitzki doesn’t have the foot speed to keep up with James off the dribble, but someone like Austin Rivers doesn’t have the height or strength to keep up with James in the post. It means James has the tools to get his shot off against any defender and any team.
The biggest difference with James this season is he’s never shot the ball this well from the perimeter. One particular shot he has fallen in love with is a stepback 3-pointer going towards his left side. According to NBA.com, James has made 10 of the 17 stepback 3-pointers he’s attempted this season, four of which have come in crunch time. Now that he is actively seeking 3-pointers rather than taking them when he has no other choice, it makes him doubly harder to defend.
It’s incredible how much the Cavaliers rely on James at the end of games. Not only does his usage rate jump to a whopping 49.0 percent, 80.6 percent of his made shots have been unassisted. Those numbers were significantly lower last season — 32.1 percent and 51.4 percent respectively — due in large part to Irving, who posted a usage rating of 36.2 percent and created 72.7 percent of his baskets by himself in crunch time.
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As a result, the Cavaliers have become an extension of James in the clutch. His reliance on 3-pointers and shots at the rim means 37.0 percent of his field goal attempts have been 3-pointers, and 51.9 percent of his points have been non-midrange 2-pointers. If James isn’t able to create a layup or 3-pointer for himself against a mismatch, it’s usually because another defender has left their assignment to help out. In which case, he can make a simple pass to one of three shooters on the perimeter or find Wade cutting backdoor, the reason why 45.8 percent of Cleveland’s field goal attempts have been 3-pointers and an equally high portion have been non-midrange 2-pointers.
Whether it’s James doing the scoring or one of his teammates, the Cavaliers have basically been feasting on the two most valuable shots in basketball when it matters most this season. And it all begins with James turning himself into the biggest bully in the NBA.