If Sunday’s game proved anything, it may be that there really is no effective way to defend LeBron James. If he decides to get to the rim, it’s tough to stop him from doing so.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t try. If you defend LeBron like an average NBA player—if you don’t pull out some unique strategies—he could score 50 points. So over the course of the day, we’ll look at different strategies the Celtics used Sunday to try and contain the best player in the game.
Let’s start with the most basic strategy: Always go under the picks on a screen/roll involving LeBron in hopes of limiting penetration and coaxing the King into a jumper.
Here’s a standard example from the 8:10 mark of the 1st quarter:
Pretty run-of-the-mill anti-LeBron defense, but it’s jarring to see just how much space Pierce is wiling to give LBJ. Check out this still:
That’s a ton of room. LeBron is shooting about 34 percent from deep, so this is probably the right strategy.
Here’s another example, this time with J.J. Hickson setting a screen for LBJ in semi-transition:
To me, this is the best possible result you can get on any possession in which LBJ shoots: a contested 18-footer taken (sort of) on the move.
But here’s the thing: LeBron is so good—so fast and so strong—that he can get to the rim on screen/rolls even if defenders go under screens precisely to stop him from doing so. He’s more likely to attack with the aggression necessary to do this in the 4th quarter of close games, and it doesn’t take much of a seam for LBJ to pull it off.
Here’s LBJ doing his thing at the 4:55 mark of the 4th:
Here’s a still shot from the critical moment in this play:
I have no clue whether this Ilgauskas screen is legal, mostly because the notions of legal and illegal screens have become so convoluted. In any case, two things to note here: 1) LeBron is turning the corner, and he’s going to have too much speed for Pierce to catch him; 2) Perk, guarding Z-man, has opted not to shift all the way over to his left to try and cut off LeBron.
I don’t know enough to judge whether this is a miscalculation by Perk. He may have thought that he could not get there in time to do anything but get in Pierce’s way or foul LeBron. He may have been concerned with leaving Ilgauskas, since that would have meant either leaving Z open in the paint or forcing Kevin Garnett (on the bottom of the screen, guarding Antawn Jamison) to leave Jamison and dive down onto Ilgauskas.
And you know LBJ is capable of making that pass to Jamison for an open three.
It’s a tough spot for Perk, and I’m not sure there’s a right answer. LeBron is that good.
There are, of course, other ways of defending a screen/roll involving a superstar basket-attacker, and we saw the C’s on a few possessions Sunday use the same set-up against LeBron that Manu Ginobili absolutely torched last week.
Here’s a possession where that strategy worked beautifully (6:40, 1st):
This is what the C’s tried against Manu: Pierce sees the Hickson screen coming from his right and, instead of fighting over or under it, jumps way out to LeBron’s right side before Hickson even sets the pick. The effect is to force LeBron to drive to his left, where Perk has sagged down and stationed himself between LBJ and the hoop:
Also note KG hanging out at the foul line just in case LeBron gets feisty and tries to go right.
The strategy results in a turnover here. I’m no hoops coach, but it can’t hurt that the C’s have the sideline as an extra defender limiting the space Perk, KG and Pierce have to cover in containing the LBJ/Hickson screen/roll. Ginobili shredded this strategy whenever the C’s used it in the middle of the floor, where Manu had more room to work.
Speaking of which, here’s LeBron shredding this defense from the middle of the floor late in the 3rd quarter:
Big Baby is guarding Hickson at the left elbow at the start of the play, and he doesn’t exactly pursue Hickson with vigor as J.J. runs up to set a screen to LeBron’s left. As you can see in the still below, Davis gets caught by a Delonte West screen. But I don’t think Baby planned to go much further out toward LeBron anyway. Tony Allen, defending LBJ, has opened up his stance and jumped out to LeBron’s right, forcing him left (or trying to, anyway). My guess is that Baby is supposed to be waiting for LBJ there at the foul line:
LeBron goes left, where the C’s want him to go. But instead of pulling up for a jumper, LBJ drives. He freezes both Davis and Allen with one hard dribble/head fake to his right, and the C’s are dead from there.
Remember that Simpsons episode where Ralph Wiggum gives Lisa a Valentine’s Day Card and comes to believe—wrongly—that she loves him? And he invites her to a taping of a special Krusty episode, during which Lisa declares that she in fact does NOT love Ralph? And Bart later replays the video of that episode to pinpoint the exact moment at which Ralph’s heart breaks?
Here’s the basketball version of that moment—the exact moment when LeBron has destroyed a defense:
Big Baby is flailing all over the place, Ray is frozen with his momentum going in the wrong direction, and there’s a whole lot of open space in the left side of the paint.
Later today, we’ll take a look at how the C’s defended LBJ outside the screen/roll.