The Weekside: LeBron James is attacking the rim like never before

Credit: FanSided   Credit: FanSided
Credit: FanSided Credit: FanSided /

They say an opponent can take the air out of an arena. Well, LeBron James may have been playing on his homecourt, but in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, he dunked so hard that he appeared to take the air out of the basketball.

And that wasn’t even his most vicious dunk of the first half.

That came a quarter later, after LeBron left DeMarre Carroll in a standstill in the corner and exploded down the baseline towards the front of the rim. The ferocity of his finish was reminiscent of the raw, elemental phenom we saw a decade ago in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform more than the aging, do-everything, game-managing savant who roams the court now in a more relatively more reserved fashion.

That’s not to say that the 31-year-old LeBron doesn’t still unleash fury from time to time. Most teenagers in this year’s draft would trade athleticism and strength with him in a second.

But this was something different. Something other.

With one drive to the hoop — and a primal scream towards the stars — James seemed to vanquish the Toronto Raptors entirely in an instant. There was never a time when the team from the North had a chance. But after this, it made you feel sad that the Raptors players even have to continue showing up to take part in a charade of a series that will clearly be a four- or five-game coronation of the Eastern Conference’s inevitable champs.

Though the ending of this play was special, this general formula has become routine.

LeBron James is getting to the rim in these playoffs like never before.

His 3-point shot — never a speciality but always a weapon — vanished this season. James made just 87 shots from beyond the arc this season, the lowest total he has logged in a non-lockout year since he was a 19-year-old rookie. Worse than the volume was the accuracy, with the four-time MVP making just 30.9% of his 3s, again the lowest since he his rookie year.

Coming into this year, LeBron had hit 339-of-899 (37.7%) of his long-range attempts over the past three regular seasons.

The drop off was puzzling and — along with the rise of players like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Kawhi Leonard in recent years — added to the notion that James was well into the inevitable defeat all players face in their matchup with Father Time.

It hasn’t mattered whatsoever in the playoffs, however.

His shot is still missing in action, but rather than that being a limiting factor, it has made James all the more deadly. He has simply stopped shooting and started going to the rack with abandon.

Where LeBron Is Shooting From

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Exactly half — 88-of-166 — of LeBron’s shots this postseason have come within 3 feet of the basket. He has made 60 of them. Compare this to just 27 makes that aren’t layups or dunks.

This is in line with his season-long trend (LeBron took 45.6% of his shot volume at the rim in the regular season) but it has been even further ramped up now that the games matter more.

We have never seen LeBron go to the hole this much in his postseason career — and it’s not even close.

The result: In nine games, James already has 11 dunks, nearly matching the 12 dunks he had in 20 playoffs games last season.

Rarely does a 31-year-old reassert himself as a penetrator. Most start off attacking the basket as a young player then, with time, age, and a decade of bumps and bruises, start settling for more midrange shots.

LeBron is doing the opposite — eschewing midrange jumpers almost entirely — and it has led to a Cavs offense that is utterly unstoppable.

His younger teammates are doing the long-range work by making 3s while he spends every possession thinking about ways to cave in the rim. And the mixture has been a potent combination that, for the first time all year, has some people starting to think the Cavaliers might be able to beat their Western Conference foes in the NBA Finals.

Disrespeck Power Rankings

You can dunk on people. You can cross someone up. You can confuse them with a no-look pass.

Or you can straight stunt on the graves of all their ancestors.

Steph Curry did just that last night in a blowout win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. In a flurry of 3s and bolts of electricity usually reserved for Hill Valley clocktowers, he took over the third quarter like only he can. It was a sight to behold, and the coup de grace of this one-man onslaught came when he shook Serge Ibaka with a fake then pulled up from deep.

With the ball still in flight, Curry turned sideways to the hoop to stare down Serge. Steph knew it was in. Randy Foye on the bench knew it was in. Serge surely knew it was in.

All that was left the glare.

5. Le Dunk de la Morte

This could be the best dunk ever. I have a few others (mostly other Vince dunks) ahead of it, but there is a case to be made that Vince Carter ending Frederic Weiss’ career is the greatest thing we’ve ever seen. A large man jumped over another larger man, and the fact that Vince has hair only adds to the moment, giving it something of a Johnny Kilroy vibe.

So the only reason this comes it at number five is because Vince isn’t really dressing down Weiss here. He is screaming at the gods above to make sure that mortals and divine beings alike all know that aint a soul on heaven or earth who can tell Vince nothing.

4. Here’s Looking at You, Kid

The only reason this one can’t raise higher in the ranks is that Ibaka doesn’t seem to be aware of the disrespect that Steph is showing. As arrogant and bombastic as Curry acts here, it’s a little bit like that time you were feeling extra generous and put a $5 in the tip jar right as the barista turned the other way.

3. Lister Blister

Got em.

2. Iverson Over Lue

To be honest, the hipster NBA fan in me is a bit upset at how popular this has become. It was always a thing. And it’s daily usage hasn’t quite gotten as ubiquitous as, for example, the once-arcane “Ball Don’t Lie.” But it has moved from the diehard-only crowd to general sports fandom meme territory.

I suppose that’s for the best because it is just that dope.

Just know that I was referencing this weekly for the past 15 years even before it was cool.

/waxes mustache and listens to black keys b-sides from 1998 that were only released in singapore on 8-track

1. Pippen Styles on Pat Ewing

It just doesn’t get better than this. The dunk itself is one of the best in-game, all-over-you throwdowns in history, and the way the aerial assault transitions so naturally into the most disrespectful walkover in league history is perfect.

Scottie looks down. Ewing grows enraged.

History is made.

Words With Friends

This week’s five must-read articles about the NBA. Excerpts here — click through to read the full piece.

1. Regrets, He’s Had a Few: Joey Crawford Looks Back
by Howard Beck, Bleacher Report

I never relaxed. I couldn’t relax. I had to get better. And it really bothers me that I just couldn’t relax with my kids. It was just like basketball refereeing was like resonating in your head all the time. I remember Doug Collins making a statement about he’s always felt guilty about being out with his wife and his kids, and plays were going through his head. And that’s what happens when you ref, you know? It’s weird.

2. “Small” Ball
by Hakeem Olajuwon, The Players’ Tribune

Being naive about basketball worked in my favor. I didn’t approach basketball with any preconceptions. When my coach told me to play the center position, I didn’t know what he meant. I could name the five positions, but I couldn’t really explain the difference between a center and a small forward. The summer before I began college, my coaches would yell at me during practice, “Hakeem, you’re playing center! Just stay in the key!” I didn’t want to stay in the key. I watched the guards and I was inspired by their creativity. The key was boring.

3. ‘We gonna be championship!’: A new approach to ‘fixing’ quotes
by J.A. Adande, The Undefeated

When we cover the NBA, we cover a diverse array of characters, with all of their successes and failures. And when you get down to it, we cover who’s gonna be championship and who’s a idiot, no matter how those things are phrased.

4. The NBA Dress Code is Nonsense
by Ben Osborne, Slam

Why does a League that runs the sport we all love so dearly have to be so lame in matters like this? Please strike the dress code from the “rule book,” apologize to AI for the strife you caused him—and the money you cost him by making him buy “business casual” gear. And continue to let Russell Westbrook wear whatever he wants. Like AI—a League MVP, lest you forget—should have been allowed to.

5. The Giant Killer: Draymond Green dares you to define him
by Lee Jenkins, Sports Illustrated

“This guy really thinks he has a mismatch!” Green tells himself, isolated on the block against the springy 7-footer. “He really thinks he’s going to destroy me!” Often he spews his stream-of-consciousness out loud. “Sometimes I say it to get myself going,” Green says. “I don’t do it to bother anybody. But if it bothers them, that’s cool, too. I don’t really care.”