By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – LeBron James wasn’t defensive about the way he and his Miami Heat club played in dropping Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday to the Indiana Pacers.
But it seemed pretty clear from conversations with him in the aftermath that James intends to get defensive about Game 2. Very defensive.
Anyone who expects the Miami star to double his points total and rain 50 on the Pacers Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse could come away awfully disappointed, because points weren’t the problem in the opener. The Heat scored 96, got 54 in the paint, ran to a 21-6 advantage in fast-break scoring and doubled up in the battle of the benches, 26-13. If there’s an offensive priority for the two-time defending champs as the series goes forward, it is getting forward Chris Bosh more involved and productive, and maybe a little more punch from guard Mario Chalmers.
Where the Heat overall, and James in particular, feel pressure to improve is at the other end. Indiana was way too comfortable all afternoon Sunday against the Heat’s muted pick-and-roll defense. And James looked almost out of his element, turning in what frequent observers considered one of this worst defensive performances.
First things first: this has not been the best of James’ 11 NBA seasons as a defender. It might not have been among his Top 5, despite his Erik Spoelstra-given nickname of “1 Through 5,” so dubbed for his ability to guard all five positions. James has lobbied in the past for consideration as NBA Defensive Player of the Year but even some of the Miami loyalists in the media who vote for such awards didn’t make much of a case for him this season. It wasn’t just that the flashy, chase-down-from-behind blocks were in shorter supply – James’ overall defensive impact was lower profile.
Some of that might come from the load he has lugged this season, with Dwyane Wade shifting into part-time status, role players such as Ray Allen and Shane Battier working the back nine of their careers and no fresh blood emerging to help on a consistent basis.
When asked Monday how he was holding up compared to past postseasons, given the increased load, James laughed and said: “Again, right? So that hasn’t changed. About the same. It’s about the same.”
Some of James’ defensive ineffectiveness in Game 1, specifically, came from his assignment guarding Pacers power forward David West. West is a throwback at that position — he’s a low-post bruiser with the ability to step out and hit mid-range (or deeper) shots, rather than a face-the-basket type like LaMarcus Aldridge now or Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace and others who took the power forward position farther from the rim in recent years.
James is built like a power forward — actually, he’s built like a linebacker who could play PF — but the outrageous physical advantage he enjoys over most opponents isn’t there against West. That’s why you saw him “fronting” West, trying to stay between him and the basketball while pinning him against the lane (and possible 3-second calls).
Playing behind West didn’t work out so well – it didn’t even work out well when Lance Stephenson backed James down for one bucket – so James tried to stay high.
“I always do against bigger, stronger guys. There’s not that many but West is one of ’em,” James said. “I don’t want him to catch the ball … If you can limit someone’s catches, if you’re stopping someone from catching the ball, then they can’t score.”
About those bigger, stronger guys, LeBron – not a lengthy list? “Nah, it’s like David West. Shaq. Zeus. And my two boys, and that’s it.”
There were times when James did slip down between West and the basket, and the Indiana player was able to unseat and back him down even more, a rarity. Because Spoelstra chose to start Battier and match him up with Paul George, rather than the bigger Udonis Haslem, James’ size was needed down low.
“It’s a huge adjustment, starting the game off that way,” he said. “Able to go spot minutes at the four, I can do pretty effectively. It was definitely a challenge for me. I don’t think personally I was in the right spots at the right time.”
He’d rather not be there any of the time. Defending power players vs. roaming and working defensively farther from the rim is basically the difference between painting a barn and painting a masterpiece. At least, that’s how James sees it. Unshackled from the paint and the banging, he can gamble, switch, help on pick-and-rolls and freelance — things that turn defense into offense.
He obviously missed that freedom in Game 1.
“I’m a perimeter guy,” he told a crush of reporters. “I could do a lot of things, but I made my money being a perimeter guy. Obviously, with the circumstances of our team, we’re not the biggest team in the world. So I have to play big at times, I have to guard the bigger guys and try to do a number on that. So it’s challenging. But I’ve got to do it. At this point. I’m trying to get a trip to The Finals, so whatever it takes.”
On many, many occasions in James’ career, that pledge – “whatever it takes” – often has meant an exponential increase in scoring, a push past 40 points, even toward 50. But the distinct impression he left with those around him as Game 2 approached was that, it will be when Indiana has the ball that we’ll see the greatest adjustment from LeBron James.