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…

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.

Playoff losses wearing on LeBron James: ‘I lose sleep’

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost one game before reaching the NBA Finals. The season before that, two. The season before that also two. In Miami before that, the last couple of years they went to the Finals the Heat lost three and four games before reaching the Finals.

This year, the Cavaliers have lost five games already and find themselves down 0-2 to the Boston Celtics heading into Game 3 Saturday night in Cleveland.

The losses do weigh on LeBron, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I mean, I lose sleep,” James said after shootaround Saturday morning. “I mean, at the end of the day, when you lose any game in the postseason, [you lose sleep], so it’s never comfort. Playoffs is never comfort. There’s nothing about the playoffs that’s comfortable until you either win it all or you lose and go into the summer.

“So, for me, it’s always [a] day-to-day grind to figure out ways that you can be better.”

Cleveland has a lot to figure out to win the next two games because if they don’t and go down 3-1 in this series, it’s hard to envision how LeBron can drag this roster back to the Finals (what would be his eighth straight trip).

Offensively Cleveland has to get consistent play from guys other than LeBron (and to a lesser extent, Kevin Love) — J.R. Smith has been awful and needs to find a rhythm at home, George Hill needs to make some plays, Kyle Korver needs to get open and knock down some looks, and some help from the bench is needed.

But that’s not even the end of the floor that is the Cavs real problem. Defensively the Cavaliers recognition and communication has been dreadful, and the passing and player movement of the Celtics has carved them up. Cleveland has outscored teams and not defended all that well for a long time now — that’s how they made the Finals a season ago — but it’s not enough now. The offense and LeBron can’t carry them all the way.

We’ll see after Game 3 if LeBron is going to be able to get any sleep Saturday night.