Sunday, May 18, 2008

LeBron's Game 7 -- a closer look

LeBron James (45 points) and Paul Pierce (41) engaged in a magnificent duel in Sunday's Game 7 between the Cavs and Celtics, becoming just the second pair -- joining Sam Jones (47) and Oscar Robertson (43) in the 1963 East finals between the Celtics and Royals -- to go for 40-plus in Game 7 history (now 99 games in all).

LeBron's effort was valiant for many reasons: in part because trying to win a Game 7 on the road is a difficult task, in part because the Celtics had just about steamrolled everyone in winning their first seven home postseason games this spring, in part because the Celtics had won 66 games during the regular season (a total that puts them in quite elite company, historically), and in part because LeBron's teammates, well, they're just not very good.

While likely spirited, MVP discussions including Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and LeBron won't reach conclusion. They're all worthy candidates. My uncounted vote went to Kobe, but one part of the MVP conversation could not be clearer: LeBron has less to work with. If you lined up those three guys' teammates and held a draft, only Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, out of 33 players, likely would be among the first 10 selections.

Still, LeBron dragged the Cavs inside the final two minutes with a victory still within reach. One more rebound, one more free throw made, one more loose ball secured might have pushed the Cavs over the top. Here's a look at LeBron's day and just how much Cleveland needed him to be spectacular just to have a chance:

By Quarter
Quarter 1---12:00--3-7-----0-0----3-4----0-1-----0---0----0-----1-----0-----9
Quarter 2---10:48--4-8-----0-2----6-7----0-0-----1---0----0-----1-----2-----14
Quarter 3---12:00--3-5-----1-3----2-3----1-2-----4---1----0-----0-----1-----9
Quarter 4---12:00--4-9-----2-6----3-5----0-2-----1---1----0-----0-----1-----13

By Shot Selection
Quarter 1---2-4-----1-3-----0-0
Quarter 2---2-4-----2-2-----0-2
Quarter 3---1-1-----1-1-----1-3
Quarter 4---2-3-----0-0----2-6

By Involvement----------------------------------Paint Outcomes---------------
Quarter 1---23------16-------5------2-4---------1------2-2---------0------0-----0
Quarter 2---25------20------9------2-4----------3-------5-6--------1-------1-----0
Quarter 3---24------21-------2------1-1---------2*------2-3---------0------0-----0
Quarter 4---24------21-------7------2-3---------3-------2-4---------0------0-----1
* Includes one "and-1"
While LeBron was in the game, the Cavs had 96 possessions. He had at least one touch on 78 of those possessions. Of those 78, he got to the paint on 23 of them, resulting in 7-for-12 shooting, being fouled nine times (one was a continuation) and three miscellaneous outcomes (hence, 12 + 9 + 3 - 1 = 23).

Non-LeBron Possessions
While LeBron was in the game, the 18 possessions where he didn't get a touch ended like this:
West-------2-4 (2-2 free throws, 5 turnovers, 3 assists)
Ilgauskas ---0-2
Jones-------1-2 (3-pointer)
Totals------6-12, 5 turnovers
^ 18 possessions resulted in 15 points.
^ The 78 possessions where LeBron got a touch resulted in 77 points.
^ In the 1:12 that LeBron sat in the second quarter, the Cavs did not score (0-for-2 with one turnover).
^ When LeBron was not involved, West was the only player with the ability and desire to attack. Unfortunately for the Cavs, while he made a couple of shots and nice passes, West also had five of his six turnovers on those possessions.

LeBron doesn't shy away from contact, from attacking. But even LeBron, for all his greatness, especially when his tank is approaching empty and opponents are trying to force him to a certain area on the floor, occasionally convinces himself that his jumper will get the job done when the right play is to keep attacking.

LeBron's entire body of work in Game 7 was brilliant, and overall (he had touches on 42 of the Cavs' 48 second-half possessions!) the numbers show he was plenty aggressive, but ... for the Cavs to overcome all of the obstacles noted earlier, they needed even more driving from James (especially late).

With Cleveland down 89-88 with 2:01 left, James snared a defensive rebound. With a chance to give his team the lead, James ground down 21 seconds on the shot clock before rising with a long 3-pointer that missed. On the game's biggest possession, James went with his least effective option (see shot chart). In fact, despite connecting on 4 of his 6 2-point jumpers through three quarters, James didn't take any of them in the final 12 minutes.

On Cleveland's next possession, with the Cavs now down, 91-88, LeBron started on the left side of the floor (instead of the preferred top in a 1-4 set, where a trap is easier to escape), where he was easily doubled near the sideline and forced to give up the ball. West missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer.

So, on the two biggest possessions of his season, LeBron was either unable or unwilling to get to the basket, or even get into 2-point range.

The Cavs needed so much from their superstar all season, but with the roster in its current state, they needed even more from him, even more than those 45 points, to beat the Celtics on Sunday.