The No. 1 strategy against the world’s No. 1 basketball player has been the same for a decade, ever since LeBron James entered the NBA as the No. 1 draft pick of 2003.
Make him shoot from outside. Force LeBron to beat you from 20 feet, not from 2.
That’s exactly what San Antonio did Thursday night – and LeBron beat them from 20 feet. He finished off a glorious NBA postseason with a 37-point Game 7 performance, carrying Miami to its second straight NBA title.
I have long thought that Michael Jordan was the best basketball player of all time, and I still believe that – for now. But LeBron is gaining fast on the current Charlotte Bobcats owner, and it’s no longer out of the question that he may one day surpass MJ.
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LeBron is a better rebounder than Jordan was. A better passer. And while Jordan was great on defense, LeBron is even more versatile. The idea that the 6-foot-8, 250-pound LeBron could match up on San Antonio’s quicksilver point guard Tony Parker was both audacious and absolutely true.
Jordan remains the better pure scorer, the ultimate fourth-quarter closer and the owner of six championship rings, triple LeBron’s total. But LeBron made his case in this debate – and in these NBA Finals – better than he ever has before.
To win this superb series, LeBron had to make shots from outside, since the Spurs dared him do that so often playing 5 feet off him. That was the way the Spurs blistered LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals, and that is still the best way to play LeBron six years later.
I made a pilgrimage to see LeBron play while he was still in high school in Ohio, and I was awed by everything about him except his jump shot. It was all over the place – off-balance, different release points, suspect ball rotation. It didn’t matter at that level, because LeBron could simply rebound his own misses and dunk them, but it sure mattered his first few years in the NBA.
But LeBron has shown a Jordan-esque work ethic with that jump shot. He didn’t have to get better – he’s been the best player in the world for a long time now – and yet he has.
For six straight years – six! – LeBron’s field-goal percentage has improved, peaking at a career-high 56.5 percent this season.
I remember after one Charlotte Bobcats game this past December when LeBron – his feet soaking in a tub of ice water – placed a stat sheet in the ice water, too. Then he started berating himself.
King James had had 27 points, 12 rebounds and keyed an easy victory. But he was angry because of an off-balance 3-pointer he shot and missed in the final two minutes. The errant attempt made him end up at just under 50 percent shooting for the game (9 for 19).
“Aaaughh!” James screamed. “Why did I take that last dumb three?”
But with better shot selection and far more consistent mechanics, LeBron shot a career-high 40.6 percent from 3-point territory this season. Mark Price, the new Bobcats assistant coach considered one of the best NBA shooters ever, shot roughly the same percentage from 3-point range for his career.
LeBron still has two NBA titles and Jordan has those six. That’s Jordan’s biggest trump card. But LeBron probably has another decade in the NBA left, barring injury. He might reach six titles before it’s all over.
Even if he doesn’t, as with Jordan it is still wondrous to watch him when he is at his best. LeBron had five 3-pointers in Game 7. He made a monstrous 20-footer with 27 seconds left and the Heat up only by 90-88. If he had missed that one, San Antonio may well have won.
That was an MJ moment, the sort of dagger Jordan routinely unsheathed in a game’s last 30 seconds. It seems a long time ago now that LeBron faded in fourth quarters – when he didn’t want to take the big shots, especially if they were outside jumpers.
But with no one else to look up to, LeBron has still grown. That’s what has turned him from simply great into truly extraordinary.
And it is that unceasing willpower, coupled with that marvelous talent, that must feel so familiar to Jordan and may well allow LeBron one day to surpass MJ and become the best basketball player the world has ever seen.