Stopping LeBron James is no longer an option.
James, thanks to the maturation of a post game, has found a terrifying new way to impact basketball games. Unfortunately for the Thunder, they have a single game to concoct a plan that slows him enough for this series to head back to the sweeping plains of Oklahoma. The best solution to this problem is using the same creative method the Boston Celtics tried near the end of the Eastern Conference Finals: go big.
Recalling the moments where Brandon Bass looked on hopelessly as James galloped by him en route to the rim certainly makes OKC fans scream out in horror. But that image of Bass guarding James in space presupposes that James wasn’t in the post to begin with. Getting LeBron off the block (and away from James Harden) is the biggest priority for the Thunder if they hope to stave off elimination.
Assigning Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka the task of checking James would do exactly that. They both have the size and strength to make post-ups a middling proposition for James in Game 5. The natural worry is James relocating back out onto the perimeter and simply dissecting the OKC defense from a different vantage point. However, as I’m sure many have noticed, Collison and Ibaka aren’t Bass, and that’s why this has a great chance of working.
Bass, despite his willingness and effort, lacked the physical qualities of Ibaka and the defensive acumen of Collison. Ibaka moves well and has the length to give James a cushion while still contesting his jumpers. Collison is smart enough to play committed positional defense, allowing him to jack jumpers while using a cushion to steer him toward the help if James chooses to drive.
Those two may even suppress his desire to relentlessly attack the rim. Dustin Gray, a skills trainer who has worked with a handful of NBA athletes, offered interesting insight on this subject:
“For all his greatness, LeBron is very much a straight-line athlete. That is not to say there is anything wrong with that as north-south movement is the key to maximizing his size, speed and power advantage. In fact, he is most successful when driving straight ahead and simply moving guys off his line of attack. The problem with this occurs when he can’t overwhelm his defender with power or speed. LeBron lacks the “wiggle” in tight spaces that other wings, like Manu Ginobilli, Kobe Bryant and even Kevin Durant, to a degree, possess. So putting someone like Collison or Ibaka on him with strict orders to give him a cushion and defend the drive, could easily result in a situation where LeBron settles for a high volume of jumpers.”
There is also a technique component James lacks that cripples his ability to destroy bigger, yet slower defenders. In most isolation switches, ball handlers with a distinct speed advantage or taught to back up and build up a head of steam before attacking their defender. At full speed, they maximize their edge and allow for a single change of direction move to leave their defender in the dust.
James rarely does this. He often begins his attack from close range, giving his defender a better chance. As Gray mentions earlier, that lack of “wiggle” combined with this technique flaw lead to more jumpers, which, for OKC, is a huge win.
If the Thunder can make James beat them from mid-range consistently, they have a much better chance of overcoming long odds to get back in this series. And if Ibaka and Collison are spending more time on James, it will free Harden of the physically draining responsibility of trying to muscle him out of the post. While it’s not a sure bet, it could spark an offensive revival for a player OKC desperately needs to produce.
For the Thunder, it’s time to go big or go home.