LeBron James seems to spend entire quarters of basketball simply haunting the game’s periphery. He fades into the mesh of his team, defers to his teammates, takes only the opportunities that present themselves. Bt he doesn’t disappear, as some have claimed; he looms like some awful force rising in the distance. When you play the Heat, there’s always the possibility, as both Boston and Oklahoma City discovered last spring, of LBJ stepping out of the shadows and crushing you where you stand.
It gets worse. It turns out that even when LeBron seems to be peripheral–as in the first half of tonight’s game, when Dwyane Wade spun and sliced his way to 18 points on 12 shots–he is still exerting subtle control over the game’s narrative. There are only a few moments of LeBron’s performance against the Wolves that really stand out–hitting that string of third quarter threes or finishing that nasty half-court alley-oop from Ray Allen. And yet: 22 points; 11 assists; seven tough boards; four blocks. Yes, this is the best basketball player in the world.
(By the way, apropos Wade’s nasty first half. This is the first time we’ve seen Alexey Shved get categorically handled by his opposing number. He couldn’t stay in front of Wade on the perimeter. He couldn’t handle Wade’s strength, quickness and footwork on the block. Like many men have before him, Alexey got worked.)
That last number stands out not just because it is ridiculous for a small forward (although determining LeBron’s actual position would be a book-length endeavor–suffice it to say, it can’t be encapsulated in a weak-ass term like “small forward”) to have four blocks in a game, but also because it highlights LeBron’s profound impact on his team’s defense. The Heat’s defensive troubles have been well-documented this season. Tonight, though, they were a furious, buzzing hive. They attacked loose balls; they pressed up on the Wolves’ ballhandlers, badly disrupting their offensive continuity; they expertly rotated into passing lanes; they collapsed on the rim. They forced 20 Wolves’ turnovers and parlayed those turnovers into a vigorous open court game.
Of course, its much easier to play ball-busting interior defense when you know that you don’t really have to rotate to outside shooters, that you can turn the paint into a five man thresher without paying much price on the outside. And you know this because you know that your opponent, our Minnesota Timberwolves, cannot shoot three-pointers to save their effing lives.
The Wolves, thanks to nasty work by Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic on the offensive glass, scored 34 second chance points to the Heat’s five. Their interior passing and cutting was, for much of the game, pretty excellent. They outscored the Heat in the paint, 58 to 36. But none of it mattered because the Heat hit 13 of their 25 threes and the Wolves hit only four out of 17. This is the NBA; if brick all of your threes and your opponent hits all of theirs, you will probably lose.
This is doubly problematic because, as I alluded to above, the lack of success on the outside leads to diminishing returns in the paint. As Jim Petersen rightly points out, the Wolves score a lot of points on the inside, but they do so terribly inefficiently. Tonight, for instance, though they tallied that massive total of paint points, they only hit 54% of their interior shots. This is partially because of whatever is ailing Kevin Love, but its also because Miami was able to shrink the floor and tee off on the Wolves’ interior shooters. Those 14 Miami blocked shots are proof enough of that.
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Speaking of Love. We’ve noted before that on everything from free-throws to hooks to jumpers, Love’s release seems awkward and forced. The ball has been coming off of his hand flat and with a shimmying, funky rotation. And it has not been going in the basket; over the past four games he has hit only 19 of his 65 shots, which is 29.2% and is very bad. I can only assume (and hope) that this is simply the lingering effects of his broken hand. But even stranger and more troubling, Love seems to have regressed in his savvy around the basket. Last season it looked as if Love was discovering how to avoid shot blockers, to finish in traffic and draw contact. This season, all of that has gone the way of his outside shot; he’s hit just 42.3% of his attempts in the paint. Tonight’s feeble 2-10 performance was only one glaring example of a larger trend.
All of this means that, in addition to playing without people like Ricky Rubio, Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger for most of the season, the Wolves have essentially been playing without their leading scorer. The team has been able to muster the collective creativity to manufacture wins without Love’s contribution. But when the Wolves begin to play against the best offensive teams in the league, as they did tonight against Miami and as they will continue to do for the rest of the week, this lack will prove deadly.