With his remarkable combination of size, speed, athleticism and savvy, it's often felt as though LeBron James(notes) can do anything on the basketball court. Everything, that is, except consistently hit long-range shots.
To be fair, James has improved his touch over the years, moving from a sub-par mid-range shooter to above-average between 16 and 23 feet this year. But he's always been at least a tick below the mark from deep, having never averaged more than 35 percent on 3-point attempts over a full season in his illustrious career. When his detractors aren't slagging the absence of an advanced low-post game, they're ragging James for not using his physical gifts to find a high-percentage look on every possession, for taking too many shots that he too infrequently makes.
Well, now — or over the last couple of weeks, at least — it looks like he makes them. Including Tuesday night, from 27 feet out, in the waning seconds of the third quarter, to give the Miami Heat a four-point lead and change the momentum of Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
The Dallas Mavericks carried a one-point lead into the dressing room at halftime and came out firing to open the third, using their trademark spacing, ball movement and execution to push their advantage to eight points. They held the lead for much of the quarter, until a James 3-pointer put Miami up 60-59 with 1:12 left in the frame. A pair of Dirk Nowitzki free throws with 16 seconds left kept Dallas within a point.
Then, LeBron went Hero Mode. The Mavs were still only four points down, but the whole tenor of the game felt different after the shot. Like, "If he's going to hit that, then how the heck do you beat this team?"
James hit his first four 3-pointers in Game 1, finishing 4 of 5 from deep. (That puts him at a scorching 41 percent from distance during the postseason, a marked improvement over the 33 percent clip at which he hit during the regular season.) As a team, Miami hit 11 of its 24 long-range attempts in the opening game of the Finals, out-shooting the Mavericks' marksmen en route to a 92-84 victory that gives the Heat a 1-0 series lead.
Late in the game, LeBron chose not to rely on his newfound touch to close out the Mavs. Instead, he did what he does best — he got to the rim quickly, and finished violently.
First, with just under three minutes remaining in the fourth and Miami holding a seven-point lead, James changed directions on Dallas forward Shawn Marion (16 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, a block, a steal in 35 minutes, which was great, but there were some questionable shots mixed in there, too) and got to the rim. Tyson Chandler met him there, but playing with four fouls, the Mavs center offered only a half-hearted contest. For his part, LeBron offered something a bit more emphatic.
Then, with the lead up to 10 and less than a minute left in the game, James put an exclamation point on Game 1, with the help of star running buddy Dwyane Wade (22 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two blocks):
James finished the night with a team-leading 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Most tellingly, he scored his 24 on 16 shots, hitting more than 50 percent of his attempts, and he only turned the ball over once. Plus, while many of us thought he'd wind up drawing the assignment on Nowitzki in late-game situations, James actually wound up spending more time on ace Mavs reserve Jason Terry, preventing the Western Conference champions' secondary fourth-quarter scoring option from shaking loose to help cut the Miami lead.
Nowitzki led Dallas with 27 points, but he struggled, missing 11 of his 18 field-goal attempts. After a hot first half, Terry struggled, too, finishing with 12 points on 3-for-10 shooting. The vaunted Mavericks bench, which gave such fits to the Los Angeles Lakers and provided an offensive spark against the Oklahoma City Thunder, combined to shoot just 4 for 22 from the floor in the loss.
At this stage in the postseason, James is doing damage inside and outside, on the defensive end and in the clutch. On a night when his teammates combined to shoot 34.4 percent, he was the difference between losing home-court advantage and getting a victory that's led to a series win in 79 percent of playoff matchups since 1996-97.
Right now, LeBron James is looking for all the world like the game's best player — an impeccable talent at the peak of his powers, just unimpeachably golden. Dallas fans had better hope that coach Rick Carlisle's got a plan to scuff his shine ready in time for Game 2 on Thursday night.
Original videos via Ben Golliver.