During Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Miami Heat unleashed an aspect of their offense that they seem to only use when necessary: LeBron James in the post. Sure, it isn’t dodo bird rare to see James post up a defender, but throughout this season the Heat have been reluctant to consistently run their offense through James down low. In fact, the last time Miami used James in the post consistently was when he picked apart the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals.
After being humbled in the 2011 NBA Finals when he was guarded in the post by the likes of J.J. Barea, Jason Terry and DeShawn Stevenson, James made an effort to expand his post game by working with Hakeem Olajuwon. By studying Olajuwon’s dizzying array of post moves, James added an element to his offensive repertoire that not only makes him borderline unguardable, but also allows the Heat to run their most efficient offense — the full force of which the Pacers felt Sunday night.
In Game 3, the Pacers had no answer for James’ post game. After establishing position, the Heat forward simply took four or five dribbles, drop-stepped, and banked a left-handed baby hook over a helpless Paul George. Even though James only scored 12 points (on 5-7 shooting) from the post against George, James’ presence down low created vital spacing for the Heat against the league’s best defense, leading to a 114-96 blowout.
With Game 4 tonight, the Pacers have surely been working on adjustments to deal with James’ post presence. If you believe Pacers coach Frank Vogel, however, those adjustments will be minor.
“We’re not going to overreact and just bring the whole world after LeBron in the post. Our scheme of guarding their leading scorers straight up and trying to limit everybody else has been a good one for us,” Vogel said. “Obviously we don’t want to give him that many or make it that easy for him in the post, so we’ll make adjustments there.”
As Vogel noted, a big part of what makes the Pacers defense so formidable is their ability to guard opposing teams “straight up,” or, in other words, one-on-one. By doing this, Indiana is able to avoid double-teaming any one player, which, if done incorrectly, can lead to a series of breakdowns resulting in an easy bucket for the opposing team. By guarding the opposing team straight up, the Pacers are also able to limit three-point attempts, something that Miami has relied heavily this season.
But with James now in the post, Indiana will have to do something to help George out. Though George is an elite wing defender, he simply doesn’t have the strength required to keep James from bullying him inside. Unfortunately for George and the Pacers, there aren’t any easy answers.
Indiana could elect to double-team James when he catches the ball down low. Against most big men, this is a reliable strategy because it forces the ball out of their hands. Unlike most big men, though, James is an elite passer. If the Pacers double him, James will use his vision to find open shooters on the perimeter or big men cutting on the base line. With this strategy, you have to hope Miami’s plethora of shooters are having an off night. While Shane Battier and Ray Allen have been cold this series, a big part of their poor shooting has had to do with the Pacers defensive scheme of contesting and limiting three-point shots. If James is being doubled, the looks that were contested now become wide open. Battier and Allen won’t be cold for much longer.
The Pacers could also choose to continue to try to guard James with only one man. As Game 3 showed, though, this is likely to only lead to easy baskets for the Heat. George can’t cope with James’ strength, and David West — probably the next best option — won’t be able to keep James from driving to the basket unimpeded. Indiana simply doesn’t have a player capable of matching James’ unique blend of speed and power.
Either way, it basically comes down to a pick-your-poison situation for Indiana. Double James and he’ll beat you with the pass. Cover him with only one guy and he’ll beat you by getting to the rim.
There aren’t any easy answers for the Pacers here. There’s no precedent of anyone beating the Heat in a series when they’ve consistently ran their offense through James in the post.
James’ post game just may be a problem without a solution.
Charlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.
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