For all who watched the Miami Heat’s convincing win in Game 3, two plays from LeBron James are easily most memorable: his rebuttal of Boozer’s dunk attempt in which he flew from the weak-side of the rim, made the clean block then caught the ball as it trickled meekly from Boozer’s grasp, and his steal on a Rose kick-out which led to him trampling a defenseless Kyle Korver like a rhino through tall grass.
These sorts of plays will always define LeBron in the minds of casual fans and experts alike. His brute athleticism borders on the bizarre. The relatively revealing uniform he wears and the constant on camera close-ups force us to focus on the bulging biceps, the broad shoulders and thick neck. We see him standing next to Kobe Bryant or even Andre Iguodala and cannot help but marvel at James’s simple size.
But the proportions of the vessel only matter because of the ingenuity, grace and skill that flow from LeBron’s frame. His delicate left-handed layups and prescient look-away passes amaze like a Grizzly manipulating chopsticks to pick out individual grains of rice.
It’s no surprise that the most visually spectacular feats command out attention. But his current opponent is designed to squeeze the superhuman into subpar performances. No individual talent in the league can singlehandedly dismantle Chicago’s defense through a virtuoso scoring performance. You can’t combat the Bulls head on. Their pressure is too intense, their athletes too stalwart for a straightforward offensive. To breakdown the Bulls, you have to outsmart them.
Aided by an intelligent game plan and his own video research, James’s Game 3 performance made plain what his coaches during his professional career, Mike Brown and Erik Spoelstra, have many times repeated: LeBron is one of the smartest players they’ve ever seen.
To say he was in command of the offense, despite a pedestrian (for him) 20 points and 10 assists, vastly understates his intelligent and precise performance. It’s next to impossible to simply attack the Bulls defense and make plays without turning the ball over—they are too fast and disciplined for pure improvisation to be so efficient. In Game 3, often LeBron wasn’t reacting to the Bulls rotations so much as he was waiting for the anticipated read to emerge.
On a number of cross-court passes, LeBron found open shooters or Chris Bosh in space. That players appeared so open as they received the whistling feed is not outstanding in itself, in reality the Bulls’ overload schemes dictate as much. What’s difficult is actually finding or creating the brief window through which the ball can pierce the maze of limbs and hands and find the open man—lobbing the ball over the top gives the defense time to adjust, and reorient to the new strong-side.
The Heat have employed a player at the top of the key as a sort of pivot between the two sides of the court. Swinging the ball rapidly through that conduit was how Miami found points against Boston, but defeating the Bulls requires even faster ball reversals.
Sincere credit should be given to Coach Erik Spoelstra and his staff for helping put players in position to make plays, but there are few players in the league with the vision and ability to interpret an opponent’s schemes like LeBron James did in Game 3. It was an epic point guard performance on par with Chris Paul’s kneecapping of the Laker giants.
After an ugly outing in Game 1, James has adjusted over the course of the last two games, looking increasingly comfortable and confident navigating the league’s best defense. In Game 3, with a calm and focus that belied the immense pressure from the circumstances and the opponent, LeBron masterfully manipulated Chicago’s team defense.
It is the plays of unmatched physical prowess that will sear James’s greatness into our memories, but don’t forget that LeBron dominated this game, as he has so many in his career, with his mind.