The Heat defeated the Mavericks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals last night, but you already knew that. However, there was one statistic that jumped out of the boxscore in this Heat victory, as has happened throughout the 2011 Playoffs. In fact, I would argue that this one factor has been the most pivotal aspect of Miami’s march towards validating the Superfriends and winning a title.
The 3 point shooting of LeBron James.
Last night, James was 4-5 from downtown as the Heat (11-24) surprisingly outshot the Mavs (9-22) from international waters. His 3 pointer at the 3rd quarter buzzer was perhaps the most important shot of last night’s game…
James was the key, making the most 3 pointers in the game last night including a trifecta of long range shots in a 22-10 run that turned an 8 point Dallas lead to a 4 point Miami lead as the 3rd quarter ended. For NBA fans (those in the 216 area code specifically), we’ve been accustomed to seeing James jack up wild threes that are lucky to catch a piece of the rim. In fact, LeBron’s outside shooting has been perhaps the biggest weakness of his on-court game (we’ll leave his off-court DECISION making out of it… see what I did there). For his career, LeBron is a 32.9% 3 point shooter. In his postseason career, James is a… 32.9% 3 point shooter. At least you can say he’s consistently mediocre – the league average this season was 35.8%.
And yet, in these 2011 Playoffs, James has seen his 3 point shooting percentage rise from 32.9% to a robust 40.3%. Going inside the numbers shows that LeBron’s new found 3 point prolificness is quite surprising…
This season, James had only one game before last night where he shot above 80% from 3 with 5 or more attempts – Christmas Day against the Los Angeles Lakers in a Heat victory. Looking at his entire career, his fantastic 3 point shooting last night and in this postseason is an incredible shock. According to Basketball Reference, LeBron has attempted 5 three pointers in a game precisely 293 times in his career (regular season and postseason), including last night’s game. He has shot 80% or better precisely 8 times out of those 293 games. 8 out of 293!!! That’s roughly 3% of the time! Last night’s Game 1 was the first time in LeBron James’ postseason career that he shot 80% from 3 point land with 5 or more attempts. His next best playoff performance from downtown – the Game 5 series clinching win against the Boston Celtics (5-7).
James (and his teams) are at their best when he’s sensible with his 3 point shooting and finding some success. His teams are 25-19 in the Playoffs when LBJ attempts 5 or more 3 pointers… but only 3-7 when that number climbs to 8 attempts per game. James’ clubs are also a fantastic 22-4 when he shoots at least 50% from downtown in the Playoffs. A look at some of the more important… and disappointing games of James’ postseason career brings even more credence to this theory. Last year against Boston in his last series as a Cavalier, he was 8-26 from 3, including 2-13 in the last three games of the series (all losses). In Game 5 of the 2009 ECF against Orlando, LeBron was 2-8 and had a 1-8 trainwreck in Game 3. Game 7 at Boston in 2008’s conference semis… 3-11. The 2007 NBA Finals? LeBron was a paltry 2-6 in Game 1, 0-2 in Game 2, 0-5 in Game 3, and 2-7 in Game 4. You may or may not remember the Cavs getting swept that year faster than you can say Anderson Varejao. But, perhaps he has finally calibrated his clutch long distance shooting. In series clinching wins this postseason, James shot 2-5 against Philly, 5-7 against Boston, and 3-6 against Chicago.
And then there is James’ overall clutch three point shooting numbers improving dramatically in these playoffs as well. In the 2010-2011 regular season, LeBron shot 24% from 3 in the clutch according to NBA’s Statscube. In the postseason clutch though, an area where James has routinely been criticized, he has more than doubled that percentage to 50% (5-10). Furthermore, LeBron has taken 67% of Miami’s clutch 3 point attempts this postseason! According to 82games.com, James’ clutch 3 point shooting the previous three seasons was 34, 42, and 31 percent. Again, a far cry from the 50% clutch 3 point shooting this postseason.
The rest of these NBA Finals may very well depend on LeBron James and that 3 point arc. If James continues his successful 3 point shooting, the Heat will win the NBA title. If LeBron James’ outside shooting grows cold like the Cleveland winter, then the Mavericks will have a great chance to rebound. It may be the most pivotal element to these Finals, but then again, maybe it’s always been the most pivotal element for LeBron James.