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Thursday, November 06, 2008

LeBron James Dazzles as Cavs Beat Bulls, 107-93

LeBron James scored a season-high 41 points on 13-23 field goal shooting and 15-16 free throw shooting as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Chicago Bulls 107-93 in Cleveland; the teams will play a rematch in Chicago on Saturday night. James also had nine rebounds, six assists and four steals despite twice tweaking his left ankle, once early in the game and then again late in the fourth quarter. This was the 20th 40-5-5 of James' career; he ranks fourth among active players in that category, trailing Allen Iverson (28), Kobe Bryant (23) and Tracy McGrady (22). James averaged at least 25-5-5 in four of his first five seasons and has a good shot of breaking Oscar Robertson's record of nine such seasons.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas had an off shooting night (6-16) but finished with a solid double-double (15 points and 10 rebounds). Delonte West (16 points) and Mo Williams (13 points) also scored in double figures.

Ben Gordon led the Bulls with 31 points. Rookie point guard Derrick Rose started out on fire--making his first four shots--and showed flashes of brilliance en route to producing 20 points and seven assists, though he shot just 3-12 after his early outburst. Rose is quick, strong and poised; he is already a pretty good player and it looks like he could eventually develop into a terrific player. Luol Deng started slowly but finished with 18 points and seven rebounds. The Bulls shot just .392 from the field and were outrebounded 46-35 as the Cavaliers followed their recipe for victory to perfection: James' brilliance supplemented by excellent defense and rebounding.

James has made 28 of his 31 free throws in the past two games, raising his season percentage to .782. That would be a career-high for him but it remains to be seen if he can maintain that level; James has had runs during which he shot .800 from the free throw line only to end the season back around the .700 mark. He is literally a streak shooter from the free throw line; last season he went 31-36 (.861) in a three game stretch only to plummet to 21-31 (.677) in the next three games.

ESPN commentator Jon Barry noticed exactly the same defect in James' free throw shooting routine that I described in my recap of Cleveland's 96-79 win over Charlotte: James looks at the floor until right before he shoots, as opposed to looking at his target (the rim) for a longer period of time. Barry made an analogy to a golf swing, saying that a good golfer focuses on the ball before striking it; another relevant analogy would be to refer to how baseball hitting instructors tell their players to "see the ball." That may sound simplistic but if you are trying to hit a target--whether it is a golf ball on a tee, a basket that is 15 feet away or a baseball moving toward you at 90 miles per hour--you have to concentrate intently on that target; you cannot just look at it a split second before you make your attempt to shoot or swing.

In his pregame remarks, Barry said that James is the best player in the NBA when he is on the move toward the basket. That is probably true but the flipside to that is that James is a well below average player when he shoots the ball outside of the paint: prior to this game he had made two thirds of his shots in the paint this season but only connected on six of his 34 shots outside of the paint, including 0-11 from three point range (he is now 0-13 after missing both of his three point attempts versus Chicago). This is not a matter of a small sample size either--while this particular sample size is small, James' shooting numbers outside of the paint have been subpar throughout his career.

James is an elite, MVP level player because of how efficiently he can score in the paint, his passing, his rebounding and his improving defense but his striking inability to consistently make shots outside of the paint is a detriment not only to him becoming the best player in the league but also to Cleveland's championship aspirations. Sure, it is possible that he can win an MVP without ever becoming a good shooter and it is possible--though a bit less likely--that he can lead Cleveland to a title without improving this weakness but it will certainly be much easier for him to accomplish those things if he develops a better shooting touch. In the past two postseasons, Cleveland has been eliminated by the eventual champion in part because elite level teams limit James' paint touches in a way that lesser teams--or teams playing the fourth game in five nights during the regular season--cannot do.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:35 AM

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