2013 Eastern Conference Finals – Pacers Isolate LeBron

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Immediately after the Indiana Pacers defeated the Miami Heat in game 2 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals series, pundits began to tell us that LeBron James needed more help from his teammates.  On the surface, this statement is plainly true.  LeBron is having a remarkable series so far, and no one else on his team is really producing at a high level.  LeBron was able to eek out a win in game one with a game winning lay-up.  In game two LeBron tried to make game winning plays with his passing, and in consecutive defensive possessions, David West of the Pacers deflected the ball and secured the steal.

It’s going to be a tough meal to swallow, but we need to not credit LeBron too much for his enormous stats and not blame him too much for those turnovers.  Give West, Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and the rest of the Pacers a lot of credit.  They have decided to play LeBron James straight up, the same way that they did Carmelo Anthony.  Usually teams don’t like to put a defender on an island against a player as talented as James (well, there are no players as talented as James, but you know what I mean).  But it can be a winning strategy if isolating the star serves to marginalize the rest of the team.

Remember the Orlando Magic of 2010 and 2011?  Admit it, you don’t remember them.  Well I do, and I remember Dwight Howard‘s huge playoff performances against the 2010 Celtics in the ECF and the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.  Check him out in 2010:

Player FG% FT% MP PTS TRB AST STL BLK
Dwight Howard .568 .549 40.4 21.8 10.8 0.7 1.0 3.0
Team Totals 244.2 90.7 39.7 14.5 6.5 5.0

And in 2011:

Player FG% FT% MP PTS TRB AST STL BLK
Dwight Howard .630 .682 42.9 27.0 15.5 0.5 0.7 1.8
Team Totals 240.0 88.7 42.3 14.5 6.5 4.0

As you can see, Howard was incredible and provided a huge proportion of his team’s offensive production in both of these playoff series. Of course the Magic lost both series too.  Why couldn’t his teammates give more support?  Because the Celtics and Hawks didn’t leave them open to double Howard, and the Magic game plan was entirely predicated upon Howard opening up opportunities for his teammates either via the pick and roll or in low post kick out sets.  The rest of the team was stationed around the three point line spacing the floor for Dwight to work.

Remind you of any current team / star dynamic?  That’s right.  Now that LeBron works in the Hakeem Olajuwon mid-post area off the left block, and the Heat is comprised almost entirely of shooters to space the floor for him, the Heat have opened themselves up to this sort of defense hampering their team production.  Yes, LeBron can destroy any individual defender one on one, even Paul George, but the Pacers can live with that as long as the result is that Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, and the two point guards stay quiet.  Dwyane Wade hasn’t been himself for months.  Chris Bosh has been relegated to a floor spacing role, though he’s capable of much more.

Erik Spoelstra is a creative coach, and LeBron is a highly versatile superstar, so I’m by no means ruling out a 100% turnaround and a quick execution of the Pacers in the next few games.  Adding motion to the offense, starting possessions from different places on the court, running more sets for the two PGs to attack the paint and then using Bron in a secondary role could all really shake things up.  Heck, going big and posting Bosh might be a move the Pacers aren’t ready for, and the ex-Rap could average 25 points a game if they play him straight up with West.

The point is that there’s a reason James is going off to this extent, and there’s a reason he’s the only one on the team playing well.  It is by design, but not the design of the Heat.  They will need to find another way to impose their will on the Pacers and win this series.

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