We are accustomed to LeBron James being overanalyzed, not overlooked.
Yet that’s what happened as Wednesday spilled into Thursday, and observers of the Eastern Conference finals continued to obsess over the player who wasn’t on the court, rather than one who covered one-third of it in less than two seconds.
Sure, it made for a compelling controversy when Indiana coach Frank Vogel removed Roy Hibbert, someone he’d called the NBA’s best rim protector, on two late possessions when the rim most required protection.
Still, what got somewhat lost after the Heat’s 103-102 overtime victory was the brilliance of James’ winning basket. Some of that was James’ doing, as he reminded everyone he has made layups since he was 8 years old. That’s accurate, just as it is true that the last part of this attempt would have been more challenging if Hibbert had played or forward Sam Young had jumped.
That shouldn’t detract from other elements of the play — testaments to James’ awareness, acceleration and, yes, ambidexterity.
The closing sequence began with James’ left foot facing the other basket as he caught the in-bounds pass from Shane Battier, and his body leaning at a 45-degree angle from the floor. Then, in one motion, he planted on his right foot as Paul George’s hand groped at his back.
James’ feet briefly made an “X” before the left one swung around, his right tapping down as he dribbled once with his left hand. Then there was the long, loping stride, a forceful push off his left foot and a quicker tap with his right — then finally, the glide, during which came the dainty release, with the ball bouncing off the left side of the box and dropping through the twine just a tick before the light went on.
All in two seconds.
Perhaps George will counter in this series. Perhaps that will make many forget the way he overplayed the pass on this possession. Even so, he — not Hibbert — will be the Pacer most associated with one of James’ signature successes.
“We got an opportunity to see it today, to see the execution,” James said Thursday, again nonchalantly. “I’m just blessed to be able to cover that much ground in two seconds, just to be able to slow the clock down in my head, just to know that I can get to the top of the free throw line to the rim.”
This skill is a product of persistence, of hours perfecting his off hand.
James writes left-handed but, as a kid, recognized his rightward bias athletically. Frank Walker, his first youth coach, taught him to make a left-handed layup, and wouldn’t let him dribble until he got the right steps to do it consistently.
“So we used to do it before practice every day, and during practice,” James said.
Over the years?
“I just put in the work,” he said.
Battier, who dives into data like few others, recalled that — as an opponent — James “had a slight tendency” to favor his right hand and drive to the right side. Alas, that no longer appears applicable.
“He’s as ambidextrous as any player I’ve been around,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s proven that. And the best players in this league, if you look at their driving tendencies, eventually become equal both ways. … You look at (Michael) Jordan’s old numbers, they look like a mirror, left, right.”
Funny he mentioned that guy. In February, Jordan was quoted in an ESPN.com article as saying that James tends to drive to the right, and shoot jumpers when going left.
“Right, right,” James said, clearly aware. “So that theory is wrong, I guess.”
Apparently so. For a coach, that means no limits.
“It didn’t take very long to figure out, OK, give him the ball with space. Don’t worry about left or right,” Spoelstra said. “Just don’t get in the way.”
Just let him do what he does, even if it means facing the wrong direction, dusting one of the NBA’s best defenders and laying up a game-winner with a tenth of a second to spare, and doing it knowing that the slightest misstep would have meant a Heat defeat and a hammer dropping on his head.
“When you explain it like that, it’s pretty amazing, but when it’s LeBron, it’s not,” Battier said, smiling. “It’s like, ‘Eh, it’s a Wednesday night.’ Whatever the night was last night.”
It was James’ night, from the left and the right.