LeBron James is rarely one to deny himself credit, but even he was somewhat amazed at the game-winning 3-pointer he sank to vault the Los Angeles Lakers into the postseason on Wednesday. Mere minutes earlier, he had been hit in the face by Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, and as a result, couldn't quite see straight.
"After Draymond's finger to the eye, I was literally seeing three rims," James said in a postgame interview with ESPN. "So I just shot at the middle one." Whatever his intent, the result was what mattered. Swish.
It was a peculiar way for James to finish off longtime foil Stephen Curry. After all, Curry is the 3-point specialist among the two, and as incredible a shot as this was, it's one that Curry has made dozens of times in his career. James, for all of his gifts, lacks such a reputation as a marksman, and as a result, he isn't getting quite the credit he deserves for one of the biggest buckets his career. Fans and prominent media members alike have tarnished the shot by calling it lucky.
There's a grain of truth in that sentiment that isn't exclusive to James. Most heaves at the end of the shot clock require a degree of luck, especially when they are accompanied by blurred vision in the final minute of a game. But Curry's track record insulates him from such claims. A shot that is lucky to mortals is ordinary to someone like him. James isn't Curry because nobody is, but over the past several years, he's come far closer than anyone wants to admit. Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and ever since his Cleveland days, James has been preparing for a moment just like this one.
No, this does not mean he's been practicing one-eyed jumpers (at least that we know of). What James has done is steadily deepen the range on his jump shot to the point where 34-foot bombs like this one are no longer extreme outliers. This was the fifth consecutive season in which James increased the number of 3-pointers he attempted per 100 possessions, but the distance of those 3-pointers has risen just as consistently.
When LeBron arrived in Miami, the majority of his 3-point attempts were close to the line. He never attempted more than 30 3-pointers longer than 27 feet with the Heat, a number that fell as low as seven during the 2012-13 season. But when he returned to Cleveland, perhaps not coincidentally coinciding with Curry's rise to prominence, James started to experiment with some extra distance. By now, he's one of the NBA's most prominent logo shooters.
27-foot attempts per game
The shots don't always go in, but James has placed a real emphasis on at least taking longer 3s. The volume is so prolific that, in the admittedly new field of logo shots, James is near the top of the all-time leaderboard. Shot distance has been tracked since the 1996-97 season, and in that time, only three players have made more 30-foot shots than LeBron's 40: Trae Young (90), Curry (109) and Damian Lillard (137). If James needs luck to make such a shot, so does almost any other player in NBA history.
There are benefits to taking such long shots that extend beyond preparation for future shots. These looks are typically more open than most looks, and they're likelier to produce offensive rebounds. James may not be a Curry-level shooter, but he's still LeBron freaking James. Defenses are going to respect whatever he does on the court, and pulling him further away from the basket spaces the floor more for everybody else, and if the right pass exists on the board, he's going to find it.
But James is famed for his meticulousness, and while he may not have known this exact situation would present itself, he made it clear after the game that was ready in case it did. "I practice enough," James said at his post-game press conference. "I work on my game. I was able to, through the man above and a lot of practice, I was able to drain it."
It was, in that sense, quintessential LeBron. His superpower is his basketball IQ, and through relentless preparation, he was able to beat Curry at his own game. On Wednesday and in the years that preceded it, James won by making his own luck.