NBA Finals: The story of LeBron James' clutch jumper
The evolution of LeBron James' clutch jumper leading to his huge shot vs. the Spurs in Game 7 of the NBA Finals vs. the San Antonio Spurs
He catches the ball near midcourt off a screen, and takes a heartbeat to examine the floor. His shooters spread to the edges. Kawhi Leonard steps up beneath the 3-point line. They've been daring him, all game. He has made them pay. It's either a tactical decision based on an inconsistent history with his jump shot or merely picking the poison and living with the ailment.
Mario Chalmers steps up to screen, then realizes the ball-handler wants more time. He feints away for a second, then, when the driver starts to engage, returns. Leonard crouches to prepare for the drive. The screen comes in (and there's a shove, by the way). Leonard anticipates and goes over. Chalmers' man, Tony Parker, extends out to intercept the ball-handler's angle, bumping him with whatever force that he can with his hip.
LeBron James barely notices.
Chalmers releases to the wing. Leonard is sprinting now, over the screen, behind Parker, to intercept James at the elbow. He has help. Danny Green has extended off Shane Battier while remaining in range to close out. Manu Ginobili is ready to swipe or foul if necessary, should James get to the rim.
James moves through Parker's bump, but doesn't turn the edge to the rim. He extends, not drifting but deliberately moving to just beneath the three-point line. Leonard is recovering. There are six seconds left on the clock. Chalmers is open. Battier could release if passed to. Bosh is open in the far corner. None of this matters.
It's too late.
It's 10 years ago, and this is the predominant story about LeBron James.
James can't shoot -- that's the early word around the NBA.
The Cleveland Cavaliers' No. 1 draft pick is a great passer and tremendous athlete, but he needs to work on his jumper.
"His shot has a little of what we call 'play' in it," Cavaliers coach Paul Silas said. "When he brings it up and locks it in, he's fine, but sometimes he doesn't lock it in right away, and that's the reason you get the waver in it.
"He flips it up there sometimes."
James is shooting a mere 29.8 percent from the field, and opposing defenders are already backing off.
When he shoots, the ball leaves his hand with a nice rotation and plenty of arc, but it's not a soft shot. If it is slightly off-target, the collision of rubber and rim is a violent one.
"When I first started, it was elbows out and all," James said. "So it's evolved a lot. It gets better every year."
Part of the problem is James' tendency to fade away as he jumps -- a habit he developed in high school and resolved to correct over the summer. The transformation remains incomplete, however, with James still stuck somewhere between his old technique and the new.
Until he works out the kinks, defenders will dare him to let fly.
And so it went. From 2003 to 2007, to 2009, to 2010, to 2011. The secret was always to force James to the jumper. His jumper improved, day by day, season by season. But it remained the thing that you would willingly give James. First, it became "if he wasn't driving," then "if he wasn't driving or in the post," and then "if he wasn't driving, in the post or shooting open threes," then you could stop him.
And even in these Finals, the strategy had worked. The Spurs had routinely used a man-zone hybrid to force James into indecision. And as he was half-open, half-covered, he couldn't find his rhythm.
That's what made Game 6 vs. the Celtics in 2012 so shocking. That revolutionary game of James' was mostly predicated on him being insanely hot with his jumper. James' evolution in the playoff and Finals last year was about him embracing his post game. That game was just an incredible basketball player, locked in with his shot.
But he had still never had "that shot." The kind of shot that defines a player. Game 7 of this year's NBA Finals provided that opportunity. And it came in the most crucial of moments.
James doesn't go smoothly into the jumper. He's not sparking into the pull-up like Jordan with the crossover over Russell. He stops for a moment, just in case Dwyane Wade is cutting to the rim or Battier is open or whatever decision that James might reach.
Leonard is closing but not enough. James rises, ironically fading away just a bit off his left leg. The ball spits out of his hand, follows its intended trajectory and strikes nothing but nylon.
Four-point game. Repeat, two titles.
It's a make-or-miss league. And LeBron James makes them.
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