With a sweep of the Detroit Pistons, LeBron James improved his career playoff record to a still-unblemished 11-0 in the first round. His teams have won 44 of a possible 51 games (.863 winning percentage) in the playoffs’ opening round. The week-long series against Detroit was par for the course for James; a man accustomed to laying waste to opponents in April.
While much of this year’s first-round series felt similar — a top-seeded franchise outperforming an eighth-seeded, happy-to-be-here unit, James casually dominating both ends of the floor, his team pillaging the opposition on the glass — something was different: James wasn’t shooting very far from the basket nor was he carrying the bulk of his squad’s scoring.
Instead, James spent a lion’s share of the series playing bully ball on the low block, attacking the rim with controlled abandon. And for the first time in his career, James didn’t lead his team in scoring in the opening round of the playoffs. That honor belonged to Kyrie Irving, Cleveland’s shoot-first point guard, who paced the Cavaliers on a 27.5-points-per-game clip. The series also marked the second time in James’s career that he didn’t lead his team in field-goal attempts; to be fair, he still averaged 19.5 — and 22.8 points — per contest.
“For our team, it doesn’t matter who is the leading scorer or anything,” James told ESPN.com. “We just want to get wins. But the fact that [Irving] was in such a great groove, just throughout this whole series, we rode his coattails. We rode [Kevin Love.] I was able to focus on some other things, especially my rebounding, get guys involved — defensively, just try to lock in on my individual matchup.”
Much of James’s playoff career highlight reel is littered with step-back jumpers and dazzling shots from the perimeter. This year, however, you’re likely to see something more analogous to his game-winner against the Indiana Pacers in 2013: a vision-blurring bull rush to the rim. Make no mistake: There’s probably no play in the NBA, save for Steph Curry’s in-rhythm jumpers, more efficient than James putting his head down and attacking the basket.
Against Detroit in the first round, James relentlessly attacked the basket — something he did more of during the regular season than ever before. He took more shots from inside the arc during this regular season than last, and his efficiency spiked inside the perimeter while diminishing outside of it. During the regular season, he took a career-high 45.9 percent of his attempts from less than three feet, and a career-low percentage of his looks (12.9) came between 16 and 24 feet from the rim.
Consider his shot charts from the past two seasons:
His jumper isn’t so much busted as much as it is woefully inconsistent. Consider that during the regular season he ranked outside the top 65 in field-goal percentage from 15 to 19 feet and from 20 to 24 feet, and ranked outside of the top 30 from three-point land. His 282 three-pointers represent the lowest total in three years, and the fifth-lowest of any season in his career.
“I’m not a three-point shooter. I never will be a three-point shooter,” he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Joe Vardon in February. “If I shoot it, well, cool, but that doesn’t define my game.”
James substituted his sometimes-feathery touch in the opening-round series with brute force on the offensive end, taking 44.9 percent of his shots from within five feet of the basket, a figure that would be a playoff career high if maintained. Less than one-third of his attempts (32.1 percent) came from 16 or more feet.
So, what did James’s altered shot composition do for Cleveland in the opening round of the playoffs? It transformed the offense into a steam engine.
Cleveland averaged 115.8 points per 100 possessions in the series, the most of any LeBron-led team in the conference quarterfinals and nearly three points higher than the Cavaliers averaged over any month this season. The Cavaliers produced 1.16 points per possession, the highest mark of any LeBron team in the opening round and the highest of any team this postseason.
James being stationed near the basket helped Coach Tyronn Lue’s outfit space the floor and find open perimeter looks, too: Cleveland attempted a playoff-leading 34.5 three-pointers per contest and connected on 41.3 percent of them.
Detroit ranked in the top half of the league in defensive rating this season. James and Co.’s dismantling of Stan Van Gundy’s defensive blueprint is no small feat — and something for Lue to build upon as the team continues to race toward what would be James’s sixth consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
A year after a playoff run in which James miraculously carried an inhuman portion of the load with Irving and Love sidelined with injuries, his share of the on-court responsibilities were substantially lightened in the first round this season. He logged one of the lowest first-round usage rates of his career (29 percent of possessions), and yet helped Cleveland blossom into the most efficient offense of the postseason thus far.