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Cleveland Cavaliers

How LeBron James torched the Pacers in 1-on-1 situations in Game 1

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) drives around Indiana Pacers' Thaddeus Young (21) in the second half in Game 1 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Cleveland. The Cavaliers won 109-108. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
AP Photo/Tony Dejak

LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all time. His combination of size, strength, and speed is unrivaled by anyone not named Wilt Chamberlain. For 14 years, LeBron has been overpowering smaller mortals, and outrunning like-sized ones.

That extraterrestrial athleticism is a big reason why LeBron has been, and still is, a terror. What makes him more dangerous is how he leverages that threat. He’s incredibly intelligent and is one of the game’s most gifted passers. He sees plays three, sometimes four frames ahead. He seems to know what defenses are going to do before they do.

Teams are left with a pick-your-poison dilemma: sell out and force anyone but LeBron to beat you, or stay at home and let LeBron go off. Neither option is a good one, but for a defense to have any sort of shot, it has to fully commit to one. On Saturday, the Indiana Pacers mainly forced LeBron to beat them one-on-one. He did just that, leading the Cavaliers to a 109-108 victory.

THE NUMBERS

LeBron was masterful in the win. He finished with 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting, 13 assists, six rebounds, and three steals. It was the 13th 30-point, 10-assist game of his postseason career; only Michael Jordan (15) and Jerry West (14) have more.

The majority of his points came in one-on-one situations. He scored 14 points on 11 isolation possessions (127.3 points per 100 possessions), and added another seven points on four post-up possessions (175 points per 100 possessions). During the regular season, LeBron ranked in the 77th percentile as an isolation scorer, producing 97.3 points per 100 possessions. On post-ups, he ranked in the 72nd percentile, producing 94.3 points per 100 possessions.

THE EVIDENCE

LeBron’s one-on-one game has never looked graceful. He doesn’t dance with the ball like Allen Iverson, shoot over the top like Dirk Nowitzki, nor does he out-fundamental guys to death in the mid-post like Kobe Bryant used to do. He uses his size and athleticism to get to where he wants to go. Don’t get it twisted; LeBron is still skilled, and his athleticism is more of a cheat code than some sort of crutch.

Indiana threw multiple defenders at LeBron. He promptly proceeded to pick them apart. When matched up against smaller guys like Jeff Teague (this happened more than it should’ve) or Lance Stephenson, he bullied them. Cleveland cleared the floor so he could scoot his way to an easy deuce or shoot over them. Other times, LeBron flashed to the middle on a seal, leaving Indy’s guards helpless:

 

Indiana typically shied away from sending help, cognizant of LeBron’s court vision and the shooters around him. On the clip below, a case of miscommunication off the ball left Monta Ellis guarding the four-time MVP. The King flashed to the rim, attempted to seal him like he did Teague a little earlier. Pacers center Kevin Seraphin saw this and decided to rotate over while the ball was in the air. LeBron leaped to catch the entry pass, but fired a bullet to Channing Frye, Seraphin’s man, before he landed. Frye knocked the triple down with ease:

 

The bigs didn’t fare much better. Seraphin and Myles Turner found themselves on an island against LeBron on occasion. They’d give him space, knowing that LeBron had a massive speed advantage Most of the time, he’d just lull them to sleep up top before turning on the jets and blowing past them anyway. The space he had did free him up for the jumper, and he cashed in a 3 over Turner as well:

 

The Pacers were baked no matter what they did, though it wasn’t from a lack of effort. Those are just the breaks when facing the best player on the planet. If Game 1 was any indication, it’s going to be a long-but-short series.

All stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference and Synergy Sports Technology.

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