LeBron James might have ditched the clear mask protecting his broken nose during the first quarter of the Miami Heat's Thursday night showdown with the San Antonio Spurs, but by the sound of things, that wasn't the piece of in-game attire he really wanted to leave behind.
After a disappointing shooting night that saw him miss 12 of his 18 field-goal attempts, including 10 of 11 tries outside the paint, as the Spurs thoroughly dismantled the Heat, 111-87, James told reporters that he just didn't feel right in the short-sleeved "El Heat" jersey that he and his teammates rocked as part of the NBA's annual "Latin Nights" celebration:
"I'm not making excuses, but I'm not a big fans of the jerseys," said James, who had 19 points. "Every time I shoot it feels like it's just pulling right up underneath my arm. I already don't have much room for error on my jump shot. It's definitely not a good thing."
James said it affects him on long-range shots especially 3-pointers. He was quick to point out that it bothered him on Christmas Day, when he wore a short-sleeved jersey and shot 0-of-4 from 3-point range in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers, and during the All-Star Game last month, when he was 0-of-7 on 3-pointers in a sleeved jersey. [...]
"I have to figure something out the next time I have to wear them," James said.
When he was informed the Heat were done wearing the sleeved jerseys this season, James replied "good."
James wasn't the only player to gripe about the gear on Thursday, according to Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, and the grousing wasn't restricted to the losing locker room:
“I got a bigger size,” [Manu] Ginobili said. “In the morning, I went to shoot and I felt it was a little tight … In my case, the size I usually play with it, I had to bump one more because I need the freedom. I’m not used to playing with braces, pads, stuff like that.”
Added [Kawhi] Leonard, “I don’t like the sleeve jerseys, either. Just something I’m not used to. Just felt a little tight.”
“I’m not as big as LeBron,” [Chris] Bosh said. “His shoulders are a little bit bigger than mine. He likes to wear smaller sizes. He kept saying it was tugging on his underarm a little bit. I’ve always said I’m more of an old-school type of basketball player. They’ve been having tank top jerseys for 100 years. They should keep it that way.”
On one hand, Jared Dubin's statistical breakdown of Christmas Day shooting compared to standard accuracy suggested that the sleeves didn't really make much of an impact. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver struck a similar note during All-Star Weekend 2014 in New Orleans, which featured sleeved jerseys.
"We know that shooting percentages are virtually exactly the same for games in which we have sleeved jerseys and teams in which the guys are wearing conventional jerseys," Silver said. "So I'm pretty comfortable from a competitive standpoint that it's having no impact."
On the other, though, multiple players have now raised a stink about the sleeved jerseys not feeling the same, no matter what the stats, Silver or Adidas' marketing reps say. That puts the league in the somewhat uncomfortable position of having a product that's reportedly selling well at retail to consumers who don't want to wear tank-tops, but that's continuing to meet with opposition from the people who have to model it in the course of doing their jobs.
“If the players as a general matter feel like they don’t want to wear short sleeves on a go-forward basis, the league would simply not do it,” NBA President of Global Operations and Merchandising Sal LaRocca told Sports Illustrated's Tim Newcomb last month. If NBA players — including the league's highest-profile star — continue to publicly rail against the uniform change, we'll see if LaRocca was telling the truth about that.
For what it's worth, Bosh went 10 for 16 from the field and Ginobili made three of six shots, while Leonard struggled to a 4 for 13 mark. Dwyane Wade would "prefer to wear traditional jerseys," but told Winderman that the sleeves wouldn't have much mattered had the Heat rolled up their own sleeves and got to work, particularly on the defensive end, where they allowed San Antonio to shoot 50.6 percent from the floor, make 9 of 23 3-pointers and pick them apart with precise ball and player movement that resulted in 30 assists on 40 made field goals.
“It ain’t the reason we lost,” Wade said. “You’re just not used to it. [The Spurs] didn’t have a problem with it. It is what it is. Let’s not make this about a jersey, please. We got our butts kicked. That’s it.”
And yet, when the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player speaks, people listen; when he says he doesn't want to make excuses and then proceeds to, y'know, make an excuse, they listen intently.
James first raised concerns about the sleeved jerseys messing with the mechanics of shooters' jumpers back before Miami's Christmas Day meeting with the Lakers before changing course a couple of days later, declaring that “there’s no problem” with the jerseys and that “they feel comfortable.” After the Heat's Dec. 25 win over the Lakers, though, James did tell Winderman of the Sun Sentinel that wearing the sleeved jerseys is "definitely a different feeling. [I] felt a little tug."
That's not all James felt at the AT&T Center on Thursday, though. He also felt the presence of an elite Spurs defense (tied for fourth in the league in points allowed per possession, ninth in the NBA in opponents' field goal percentage) that time and again built a wall in front of him to deter forays to the rim. Check out how Tony Parker and Danny Green are in the paint and ready to help early should LeBron drive, and how both Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw are keeping an eye on James should they need to be ready to slide over to help:
And how they busted it back in transition — the Spurs got all five guys behind the ball a lot on Thursday, even after misses — to be prepared if LeBron did gain the lane off a screen, pushing him back out, forcing him to reset and contesting the second attempt:
As they did throughout the 2013 NBA Finals, Gregg Popovich's Spurs hewed to the belief that you have to force LeBron to take jump shots because, while he's eminently capable of deep daggers and in-rhythm explosions, success rates of 40 percent from midrange and 37 percent from long-range are a hell of a lot lower than 80 percent at the rim.
“They went under all my picks and rolls and dared me to shoot,” James said after the game, according to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “They just didn't go in.”
(It's worth noting, as ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh does, that they haven't gone in very much since James finished flambéing the Charlotte Bobcats.)
More to the point, though, he felt Leonard, the Spurs small forward who on Thursday looked much more like the rising star whose sensational play against James in the 2013 NBA Finals helped San Antonio draw so close to a championship than the at-times tentative and overstretched player he looked like earlier this season. From the Express-News' Buck Harvey:
So there was Leonard, once circling James in the post to slap away a pass, once sweeping his long arms for a steal. If James was tired in Houston on Tuesday, he was tired of Leonard in San Antonio.
For Leonard, it was an anticipated moment. He played [Kevin] Durant well early in the season in Oklahoma City, but missed the second meeting with dental issues and broke his hand in the second game. When the Spurs went to Miami, Leonard was still out.
So Thursday was more than a game against the Spurs' Finals opponent. It also was a test for him. And while he didn't shoot well, either, he was what the Spurs need against the league's best scorers.
This is likely: As LeBron removed his mask at halftime, and when he said afterward he wanted to cut off the sleeves, the accessories didn't bother him as much as the defender standing in front of them.
“Kawhi was a pest,” Tim Duncan said. “He stuck his hand in there and knocked some balls away, got some steals, contested shots ... we need him to be that kind of guy.”
The Heat, obviously, need James not to be that kind of guy if they want to three-peat, no matter what burden's resting on his shoulders.
And now, because everything at this stage of the game must necessarily boil down to LBJ vs. KD, here's Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:
If the clip up top isn't rocking for you, feel free to check it out elsewhere, via Ben Golliver of The Point Forward.
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