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Breakdown: LeBron James' passing is poisonous

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

With LeBron, you truly have to pick your poison. (Getty Images)
With LeBron, you truly have to pick your poison. (Getty Images)

"Pick your poison."

Unless you're the Dread Pirate Roberts and you've spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder, you're always going to have to decide the method of your own demise when presented with the task of picking your own poison. That's what it's like when you try to build your defense against LeBron James. The majority of us can recognize that James is the best player in the world, and he's been historically phenomenal during the Miami Heat's 27-game winning streak.

In his team's win over the Orlando Magic on Monday night to extend the streak, James was a force in all aspects of the game, but his passing was the most prevalent weapon at his disposal. By looking at his numbers, his 11 assists are impressive but not all that unusual. He's had at least 11 assists or more in 11 of the Heat's 70 games this season.

What was incredible to watch is what those assists ended up being. His 11 assists led to 30 points, thanks to eight made 3-point shots.

The Heat love attacking you from the top of the key and the corners. With their ability to get into the middle of the floor and put shooters in the most efficient spots on the floor, they just bombard you with corner 3-point shots. They've taken the second most attempts in the NBA from the corners this year (only Houston has taken more) and they have the third highest corner 3-point percentage.

This Miami team isn't just gunning from 3-point range. They've taken the seventh fewest 3-point attempts from above the break. They're surgically picking opposing defenses apart by using their strengths (LeBron and Wade attacking the middle) to set up smarter shots (shooters in the corners).

Against Orlando, the Heat had six assists -- all by LeBron -- that showed you exactly how they try to get their shooters in open space and shield you from closing out. It allows LeBron the proper spacing, which means you have to pick your poison by either letting him beat you at the rim or with his passing.

As James drives to his left, he has the attention of all four help defenders looking his way, as you do when you're standing on train tracks and a freight train is headed your direction. Because everybody is paying attention to James, it allows shooters like Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis to sneak into open areas. When this happens, the Heat often have a big man sliding between the shooter and the shooter's defender to become an obstacle course for the defensive rotation.

Assuming Beno Udrih, Maurice Harkless and E'Twaun Moore can't wrestle the ball away from LeBron in the middle of the paint, LeBron now can either fire back over his shoulder to an open Battier or he can kick it to Lewis, who happens to be standing in his line of vision.

As you can see in the video, the fact that Chris Andersen steps slyly between Lewis and Udrih means that Orlando's defense can't recover on the play to properly contest the shot. And even Lewis at this stage in his career can knock down open corner 3-pointers in a building he's used to playing in.

This is an example of how the Heat utilize spacing in transition. Normally, you'd find wing players diving to the basket from either side of the basket and coming up the other side of the floor to either occupy the corners or the wings. All five defenders appear to be gravitating toward the middle of the floor, where they probably anticipate LeBron to be.

James definitely gets to the middle of the floor, but he has all five defenders looking right at him. Only Jameer Nelson is in proper help position on the left side of the floor. Lewis has faded to the right corner instead of cutting through the lane.

This flare out to the corner by Lewis is something Miami does really well. Because they aren't just looking to fire up any 3-pointer and would rather fire up corner 3-pointers, there are times in which they're finding chicanery to get themselves to the corner. This fake run-through by Lewis and flare to the corner is a decent example of this.

On this play, LeBron is isolated on the left side of the floor and all of his teammates are stacked on the right side. Miami puts Lewis in the corner with Orlando trying to build a wall to keep LeBron from another highlight dunk. Chris Bosh is going to smartly dive toward the help defender that will have to run out to Lewis.

Bosh "accidentally" gets in the way of Udrih, buying Lewis enough time on the skip pass across the court to catch, set his feet and let it fly. LeBron has three defenders around him, leaving four Heat players to be defended by two Orlando players.

Honestly, I think the only way to try to counteract this by the defense is if you're the man getting picked by Bosh, maybe you should try flopping to see if you can get him whistled for a moving screen. He's not exactly set when he makes contact, but it almost looks designed to be incidental contact by the screener. Like one of those crossing routes in football in which the receiver tries to run his coverage off another receiver crossing the field.

Because LeBron is so good at the cross-court pass, you have to be smarter about how you defend the perimeter with your help defense. Here, the Magic are defending man-to-man on the pick-and-roll. They should really have Udrih dropped down a bit more to make LeBron hesitate passing to the corner. Instead, he's worried about an above the break 3-point shot the Heat just rarely take. And Jameer Nelson is helping in no man's land with Norris Cole wide-open in the corner.

It can't be easy to defend against LeBron's passing to the corners, but you also can't leave all that space to make it routinely easy for him. Switching up coverages and knowing where the soft spots on the floor are has to be something you do throughout the game, just to get different looks.

Because the Heat are so good at the corner 3-pointers, they cheat up the sideline a little to keep defenses on their toes and still take efficient 3-point shots in rhythm. These are technically 3-point shots from the wing area, but it's close enough to the corner that you're keeping a properly efficient distance from the basket most of the time.

On this play, the Heat are using misdirection again by moving multiple guys through the same area to confuse the defense. Ray Allen comes down looking like he's going to set a screen for Battier to pop back out to the 3-point line. Then Battier just cuts through and allows Chris Andersen to set a screen to free up Allen at the 3-point line.

LeBron fires a quick pass to Ray on the perimeter as Andersen possibly gets away with a moving pick on Udrih.

The most stunning thing about this play is how quick every decision is. LeBron's pass seems at lightning quick speed and Allen's decision to shoot the ball has been made before the pass is even headed his way. He sets his feet immediately and seems to have released the ball before he even makes the catch.

The last assist that shows Miami's spacing and LeBron's passing against Orlando is the final 3-pointer he assisted on. He gets a switch and a mismatch (well, aren't they all?) with Udrih guarding him. The lower half of the Orlando defense looks like they're entirely confused about the situation and they leave so much of the middle of the floor completely clear, other than Jameer's right hand.

Ray cuts through the lane to the other side and leaves Mario Chalmers all by himself on the right side of the perimeter. James still has that entire area clear of any objections to him throwing a pass.

Once Ray circles back toward the top, the Magic have three guys in LeBron's area and nobody within shouting distance of Chalmers.

The patience LeBron shows on making this pass is pretty cool too. A lot of guys might get assist-anxious and throw the pass while the defense can still react to it. He waits for Orlando to settle into building a wall against him, while completely forgetting about Rio on the right side.

Should LeBron be able to do this against a team like Orlando? Yes and no. The Heat are obviously a much better team than the Magic, but Orlando is quite good at defending the corner three. They give up the sixth lowest percentage in the NBA, but they also don't face a corner-happy team like Miami very often. And that's the choice defending LeBron right now gives you.

Pick your poison. Do you want to be on a poster or do you want to give up a 3-pointer? Because most of the time, it seems like those are your only defensive options against the team that's won 27 straight games.

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