It would be easy to cite LeBron James average of 2.7 blocks per game during the Houston series as evidence of his shot blocking prowess. Too easy. I could also state that he had as many blocks last night (4) as Anthony Davis has had the entire series. But to suggest that LeBron has been the linchpin to Los Angeles paint protection requires a deeper look and a whole lotta film.
Lucky for you, I have said film. Why write when you can show, right? But before I smack down the film, it is imperative to know the main strategies to defending James Harden. Firstly, Los Angeles is engaging in schemes to have him pass early. Harden does not move much without the ball, so accomplishing this is a win for LA. Secondly, they have been shading him to both prep for his notorious stepback jumper and encourage him to drive into help defense. Check out Bron and ADs’ body positioning.
Los Angeles is willing to live with forcing Harden into a rotating rim protector and then helping the helper. Yet, their best rotating big has been LeBron James. With Davis frequently dragged onto the perimeter and JaVale McGee playing a total of 28 minutes so far this series, James has been tasked with paint protection duties. How has he performed so far?
Okay, I promised less writing. In the spirit of self-plagiarizing, let me restate that the trick to defending Harden does not lay in where you meet him on the court rather, where you meet him in his decision making process. James has had immaculate timing on his rotations and has caused turnovers or kickouts.
Eric Gordon was forced to opt out of a rim attempt as well. The Lakers need to trust that LeBron and AD will deter shots and rotate quicker to the perimeter, although they have done a solid job at that already.
This next play is subtle but one of my favorites. An instinctual early rotation from LeBron changes Gordon’s mind about going to the rim. Instead, he opts for a well-contested midrange two, the last shot Houston wants.
Altering/Blocking James Harden
Harden’s shot chart near the rim is liable to looks like ants gathering around someone’s spilled potato salad at a summer barbecue. Yes, he loves taking triples, but when he is not launching 3-pointers Harden is almost exclusively getting deep into the paint.
Fortunately for LA fans, LeBron has been meeting him there. Although Harden has had some success at the rim, LeBron has made life difficult for him there when the two collide. Again, Bron’s early rotations paired with his freight train body have led to altered shots or blocks.
There may not be a current Laker who has the awareness, foot speed and leaping ability to make this next help-side rejection.
Rotations Away From The Paint
Throughout the first three games of this series James is posting a wild 3.3 block percentage rate, which is surely one of the highest in the NBA right now. This is partly due to his ability to rotate onto kickouts and/or help when teammates get burnt. Consider this rotation onto Gordon and the ensuing swat.
Houston causes tons of defensive movement and LeBron has the athletic profile to keep pace. What’s more, his IQ is still in peak form. It is the reason why he is able to help off of his man for this nasty rejection of a Russell Westbrook shot.
Below, James doubled on Gordon to stop his drive then found his way back to Westbrook on in the corner. This demonstrates how LeBron can help off of his man but still recover in time to ensure there is no offensive advantage (no, I’m not done with you yet, Russ.)
Hopefully by now you have learned that although LeBron’s chasedown narrative holds water, it is far from the only way he contributes as a rim protector. Still, his fastbreak defense has been excellent and is starting to impact future Rockets decisions.
LeBron has blocked Westbrook’s fastbreak attempts multiple times during this series. Watch in awe.
These blocks have likely found their way into Westbrook’s head in the form of bad memories. It could be why Westbrook opted for a transition kickout (that led to a turnover) rather than jeopardize anoher layup attempt during Game Three.
In Game Four, expect more limited minutes from any Lakers big that doesn’t sport a unibrow. Los Angeles has found success with defensive schemes that task LeBron with being a rotating paint protector. This, combined with an effort to limit Harden’s 3-point attempts, has led to a 2-1 series lead.