When LeBron James scored 25 straight points to beat the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, I thought the NBA as we knew it had changed.
If the Pistons, who had one of the league's best defenses, couldn't even slow LeBron, who could? His incredible first step accelerated him to the rim, where he either made a short shot or drew a foul. To me, it appeared he'd figured out how to take advantage of all his physical gifts. There would be no stopping him now.
I wasn't quite convinced the Cleveland Cavaliers would win the title. After all, this was back when questions still existed about LeBron's defense. But I was certain they'd have the league's most unstoppable offense. Just give the ball to LeBron and get out of the way. It would work every time. I thought 48 points on 18-of-33 shooting would be his new baseline.
Obviously, I was naive. Even a player as gifted as LeBron can't sustain that type of performance every night--no matter how easy he made it look.
If I hadn't fallen for the trap of LeBron making his contributions look routine before and learned my lesson, I might have been tricked again this year. Late in the Eastern Conference playoffs, LeBron's outside jumper looked better than it ever has. You could tell the rim looked huge to him. It seemed like he had added another dimension to his already vast skillset.
Alas, it didn't last. LeBron's effective field-goal percentage on shots beyond 15 feet was just 42.7 in the Finals, much lower than his regular-season total of 46.5 (all shot-location numbers come from HoopData). But in the previous six games, it was 51.6.
Why should one of those six-game sets hold more relevance than the other? Many studies have shown people see patterns that don't exist. LeBron didn't necessarily regress in the Finals. Maybe we're just looking at too small a sample. How much do 51 shots really tell us?
Looking at a bigger picture, LeBron grades much better. In his last 12 games combined, LeBron's effective field-goal percentage on long jumpers was 48.1. Keep in mind, the Mavericks, Bulls and Celtics all ranked in the top four in defending shots between 16 and 23 feet and top seven in defending three-pointers. So, besting his regular-season effective field-goal percentage from that distance, which essentially came against average competition, is particularly impressive.
Unfortunately for the Heat, the low end of that sample came during the most pivotal part of the season. Coincidence or not? That's difficult to determine. It's not difficult to determine the direct effect: LeBron didn't score as much from the perimeter as he usually does. The indirect effects could be even greater.
Maybe LeBron's cold streak from the outside allowed the Mavericks to sag off him, which limited his drives to the rim. Maybe his lack of drives to the rim prevented him from getting to the free-throw line. Maybe his lack of offensive success hindered his determination on defense.
This isn't to excuse LeBron. Even if his outside shooting slump in the Finals was just due to a random swing, great players can't let that wreck the rest of their game.
But I'd argue at least one element of his collapse--perimeter shooting--may have been overstated.
Dan Feldman is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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