How much has LeBron James’ post game improved?

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If you’ve taken a drink every time a national TV broadcaster has referenced Miami Heat forward LeBron James’ “improved post game” this season, there’s a good chance your liver hates you. After being shut down by the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals thanks, in part, to James refusing to punish the likes of Jason Kidd and even J.J. Barea on the block, LeBron went to Hakeem Olajuwon this off-season and focused on making the low-post game a much more integral part of his arsenal.

However, Grantland’s Sebastian Pruiti has a post up today that makes the distinction between LeBron having “improved” his post game and the fact that he’s embracing the low-post game more:

Even last season, before James “developed” any moves on the block, he was one of the most efficient post players in the league. He shot 53.2 percent in the post and his 1.043 points per possession there put him in the 91st percentile among all NBA players. His numbers were so good that I named him one of the five best post players in the game after the season.

This year, James’ post game is a talking point. We can’t watch a Miami Heat game without hearing how much James improved over the offseason. James even tipped his hat to his low-post evolution in an interview during Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bulls. The problem is that James’ low-post numbers are actually worse than they were last season. His 0.958 points per possession put him in the 77th percentile among all NBA players.

As Pruiti points out, LeBron is backing down his man on the block far more often than he did last season, but his post-up efficiency has suffered as a result, mainly because he’s turning the ball over more when he’s posting up this season than he did last year.

However, I see LeBron’s decreased post efficiency as a case of LeBron taking one step backwards right now in order to take two steps forward in the future. Moneyball enthusiasts will remember the curious case of Scott Hatteberg, who swung at less first pitches than any player in baseball during his prime, but absolutely crushed the ball whenever he did swing at a first pitch — when presented with those stats, Hatteberg explained that people weren’t realizing that when Hatteberg did swing at a first pitch, it was only because it was a pitch so easy to hit that not even Hatteberg could resist taking a hack at it.

Such is the case with LeBron’s post game. In previous years, James would establish mid-post position, take a few tentative dribbles, and patiently wait for the double-team to come before making a skip pass out of it — sometimes it would lead to an open shot, but more often than not the defense would have time to rotate and James’ post-up would lead to nothing more than 8 seconds of wasted time for his team. When the opponent practically begged LeBron to take him one-on-one, James would grudgingly oblige, which is what led to him having one of the best post-up PPGs in the game.

James’ post-game is still a work in progress, but that’s no longer a euphemism — James is actually putting work into his post-up game, and the progress is coming. James’ face-up jump game from the mid-post is already deadly — like last year’s ISO-heavy vintage of Amar’e Stoudemire, he can knock down the 15-footer or blow by his opponent once he’s used his strength to get solid position and can use his speed to blow by him. James’ back-to-basket game isn’t McHale-like yet, but as Pruiti noted, he has a reliable turnaround over his right shoulder and a good counter-move to the middle already, and the ambidextrous James is finally developing some confidence with a lefty hook on the low block. And as Pruiti also notes, James is now spinning to the baseline instead of the middle when he makes his post moves, which leads to slightly lower-percentage looks but also keeps James from allowing a double-team to keep him from getting a shot off.

Most importantly, James isn’t getting discouraged when a post-up possession doesn’t go his way — in previous years, James would get good position, make a strong post move, miss a bunny, and then give up on his post game for the rest of the contest and settle for launching jumpers. In the waning minutes of Sunday’s game against the Bulls, James backed down Ronnie Brewer and was called for an offensive foul. Rather than get discouraged, James came back on the next possession, backed Brewer all the way under the basket, and converted on the easy layup to give the Heat a key basket in crunch-time. No matter what the numbers say, that’s simply not a play James was comfortable making with the game on the line in seasons past.

James still doesn’t have Kobe Bryant’s balletic footwork in the post or even Shaq’s confidence in his pure power moves, but he finally seems to have made a commitment to patching up what had been a glaring hole in his game. Now, if he could just get comfortable knocking down open catch-and-shoot threes and shoot 85% from the free-throw line…

Three things to watch: Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards

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1. How much will these teams’ disdain for each other color the series?

Back in January, the Wizards wore all black for a figurative funeral while arriving for a game against the Celtics then buried Boston in a 123-108 win.

But the Celtics are still alive and ready for the next stage in a rivalry that has included:

Both teams appear primed for more hijinks. The Wizards taunted the Hawks throughout their first-round series, and Boston crossed the line with the Bulls.

2. Which team is actually better?

The Wizards outpaced the Celtics in my adjusted-for-playoff-rotation rankings before the postseason began. But getting a clear picture of who’s in the teams’ playoff rotations and counting the first round turns the tables.

Here’s both teams’ offensive, defensive and net ratings from the regular season to counting only lineups (regular season and first round) comprised of five players projected to be in the teams’ rotation this series:

1. Boston Celtics

  • Offensive rating: 112.4 to 116.2
  • Defensive rating: 109.8 to 110.4
  • Net rating: +2.6 to +5.8

4. Washington Wizards

  • Offensive rating: 111.7 to 115.6
  • Defensive rating:  110.0 to 110.5
  • Net rating: +1.7 to +5.1

Even with the flaws in these numbers – small sample sizes and no control for competition – the question of which team will put a better team on the floor in this series isn’t everything. Boston has home-court advantage, and that matters.

The complete updated playoff-rotation-adjusted ratings will be released Monday, after the first round ends.

3. How will the MVP-vote-getting point guards match up?

Both the Celtics and Wizards are reasonably deep, but good luck keeping your eyes off their star point guards. Isaiah Thomas and John Wall both received fifth-place MVP votes, tributes to their importance to their teams.

Thomas is Boston’s lone reliable scorer, and that brings a heavy fourth-quarter burden – which he has answered all year. Even when opponents know he’ll get the ball, they haven’t stopped him. Wall also drives Washington’s offense, though he does it with a more balanced passing and scoring attack throughout the game.

But Wall’s primary argument for superiority over other big-name point guards – including Thomas – is his defense. The 6-foot-4 Wall will have an opportunity to show that against the 5-foot-9 Thomas. Likewise, Thomas has a chance to pester Wall enough to show the defensive gap isn’t too wide.

Warriors hope to get Shaun Livingston, Matt Barnes back for second round

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The Golden State Warriors hope to get injured reserves Shaun Livingston and Matt Barnes back from injuries for the second round of the playoffs after getting more than a week off between series.

The Warriors said Saturday that Barnes has been upgraded to probable for Tuesday night’s Game 1 and Livingston remains questionable but is hopeful he will be ready to return. Star forward Kevin Durant is expected to be a full go after missing two games and being limited to 20 minutes in Game 4 last round because of a strained left calf.

Barnes has been sidelined since April 8, while Livingston sprained a finger on his right hand in Game 1 of the first-round against Portland.

Golden State begins the second round at home on Tuesday night against the winner of Sunday’s Game 7 between the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz. The Warriors have been off since sweeping the Trail Blazers last Monday, giving them more than a week between games.

“I’m trying to make sure I rest it as much as I possibly can, because when I do come back I plan on staying all the way back,” Livingston said Saturday. “Hopefully it will be ready for Tuesday.”

After taking Tuesday and Thursday off following their first-round sweep, the Warriors practiced for a second straight day Saturday. They plan to practice again on Sunday and then again Monday once they know their second-round opponent.

There is no update on the status of coach Steve Kerr, who missed the final two games of the first round because of complications from two back surgeries. Kerr talks daily with interim coach Mike Brown and took part in coaching meetings Friday but was not at practice on Saturday.

PBT Extra: Rockets vs. Spurs far more than Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden

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Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden. Two MVP candidates matching up in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

However, the San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets is much more than that.

It’s a battle of pace. It’s a chess match between two of the best coaches in the game. It’s about which team’s role players are going to step up.

I talk about all of that in this latest PBT Extra. Plus, of course, when Leonard will guard Harden.

How to start your Saturday night: Watching 15 minutes of best plays from NBA season

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There are no NBA playoff games Saturday night, the first night since the start of the postseason there hasn’t been one game. Don’t worry, there are two games on Sunday, including Game 7 between the Jazz and Clippers.

But if you need a Saturday night fix, this will have to do: 15 minutes of the best plays from last season, as compiled by NBA.com.

Go ahead, watch it. You’ve got nothing better to do.