In Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James passed the ball. In other news, the sky is blue. He does that quite a bit. The pass itself was a good one. James, attacking the basket in the final seconds of 78-76 game in favor of the Detroit Pistons, saw two defenders converge at the basket with his own man still trailing him. Noticing a wide-open Donyell Marshall in the corner, he kicked it out for a potential game-winning shot, the proper strategy on the road, where overtime is more precarious.
Marshall was a career 38 percent shooter in the corners. He was one of the earlier stretch-4s to emerge in the NBA, and a game prior, he had gone 6-for-10 from behind the arc to bury the New Jersey Nets in the second round. On this play, though, Marshall happened to miss.
Misses happen. This season, only around 54 percent of potential assists from the Lakers were converted into assists. In the best of times, a pass to a jump-shooter is a coin flip, but if the wrong side comes up? The decision to flip the coin at all becomes inexcusable. James was ridiculed for deciding against taking the shot, a sentiment he is still experiencing to this day.
“Yes Danny Green was open,” former NBA player Jay Williams opined on twitter after Game 5 of the NBA Finals, “but I don’t care what no one says… Bron needed to shoot that shot. PERIOD.”
The shot in question came on this drive as the final seconds of Game 5 ticked away. The Lakers, trailing by one, put the ball in the hands of James. Just as was the case in 2007, LeBron had his own man (Jimmy Butler) trailing him. Again, he had the two defenders in the corner, Bam Adebayo and Jae Crowder, converging at the basket. Oh, and this time, let’s throw in a fourth defender, Duncan Robinson, who started the possession on Danny Green but left him to help on the greatest Laker threat. What sounds like a better shot: 4-on-1 at the basket, or 1-on-0 behind the arc? James made the call. It didn’t work out.
Green has struggled behind the arc this season, making only 36.7 percent of his attempts compared to 40 percent for his career. Those struggles have intensified in the postseason, where he had hit only 33 percent of his long-range attempts prior to Game 5. But he entered that final play shooting 50 percent for the game, and while tracking data only goes back as far as the 2013-14 season, since then, he has made 42.5 percent of his wide-open 3-point attempts. Last season, he shot 42.2 percent on above-the-break 3’s for a championship team.
In a 4-on-1 situation, did LeBron have a 42.5 percent chance to score at the basket? A 36.7 percent chance? A 33 percent chance? Probably not. A few minutes earlier, James found himself in a very similar situation. He drove to the basket, again with Butler on him, and again with Crowder in the right corner. Tyler Herro helped as well, slowing him down enough for Butler to get the block.
That’s only one play. LeBron is among the best finishers in NBA history. But no player can consistently generate high-percentage shots at the basket in such traffic. James performed the calculations in his head. The odds of him getting making the layup or getting fouled were relatively slim. The odds of Green making his shot were better. Disagree with that all you want, but remember, LeBron James probably has a higher basketball IQ than you. He’s as well-equipped to make that decision as anyone on Earth. And he made the right one.
What happens after the ball leaves his hands is out of his control. Had the shot gone in, he would have been praised for the decision. We know this empirically because the only player worthy of comparison to James found himself in nearly identical situations… twice. If LeBron James “needed” to take that shot, as Williams and so many others will argue, then it stands to reason that in a similar situation, Michael Jordan would have needed to take the shot as well.
Yet in 1997, he did not. The score was tied with under 10 seconds left in Game 6 of the Finals, and the ball was in Jordan’s hands. John Stockton left Steve Kerr to help against him, so Jordan passed it to his open teammate. Kerr made the shot. The Bulls won the championship.
Four years earlier, Jordan didn’t even make the game-winning pass. Trailing by two at the end of Game 6 of the 1993 Finals, he passed the ball to Scottie Pippen before he crossed half-court. Pippen passed to Horace Grant, who passed to John Paxson, who made the game-winner from behind the arc. Again, it clinched the championship. Again, Jordan passed up the chance to play hero.
When James passes the ball late in a one-possession game, it is argued that he lacks the killer instinct that players like Jordan seemingly possessed. Yet Jordan himself passed out of some of the biggest potential shots of his career, and he did so for the same reasons LeBron has: he was making the right basketball play.
The sort of player that demands last-second shots is exactly the sort of player that misses them. If a defense knows that one player is going to insist on shooting no matter what, it becomes significantly easier for a defense to sell out against stopping that specific shot. In 1993 and 1997, Jordan’s opponents bet that he would be the one taking the final shot. They were wrong, and they lost because of it. In 2007, 2020 and several times in between, LeBron’s opponents bet that he would be the one taking the final shot. They were wrong… and they very nearly lost because of it.
They didn’t, though, for reasons that were entirely out of LeBron’s hands. Jordan’s teammates made the shots that LeBron’s missed, so Jordan was spared the insufferable notion that passing signified some sort of weakness. LeBron, obviously, was not, and a game in which he made 15 of the 21 shots he took will instead be remembered for the one shot he wisely decided not to take.
Fortunately for the Lakers, it is a decision LeBron will never not make. It’s been 13 years since that fateful pass against the Pistons, but his decision-making process hasn’t changed one bit. The Lakers may have lost Friday just as the Cavaliers lost that 2007 series opener. But Cleveland won the series because LeBron continued to make the right basketball decision every time down the floor, and if he does so again in Game 6, the Lakers should expect the same outcome.