In the Lakers’ win against the Celtics, LeBron James missed a free throw with less than a minute to go. The fact that LeBron sometimes struggles at the stripe is one of the most confounding things about his career. And with that miss, the outcome of the game might have been chalked up to that one bizarre issue that has plagued him for almost two decades.
Then the Lakers got the ball back and LeBron backed down Jaylen Brown on the right block, smiled, and hit a turnaround fadeaway to put the Lakers in the lead.The shot was great on its own — for the fact that it put the Lakers up for good, and for LeBron’s little knowing smile. But after the game, he explained another fascinating dimension to the fadeaway: his decision wasn’t instinctual, but the result of how he had attacked Brown throughout the game. LeBron had been setting up his defender from the start:
“I had been setting him up all night with the back down to the drop step to the baseline … I figured he would sit on it thinking that I would try it again. Went to my back down, gave a little Dream Shake to the baseline and I was able to open up middle and get my fadeaway.”
When LeBron gave Brown the Dream Shake, Brown froze. The Celtics star anticipated that drop step to the baseline, and by the time he realized that LeBron was doing something else, it was too late. He had given up too much space. Brown lost that critical moment because he had read LeBron’s game too well, making himself susceptible to a surprise. Or rather, LeBron conditioned Brown to expect one thing so that he could pull out the unexpected to beat the Celtics.
Of course, LeBron can only boast because the Lakers won. Had he not been successful then all of those drop steps would have been in vain. But his explanation of the shot points to a quality of professional basketball that makes the game’s last few minutes so exciting.When watching the NBA, it can feel as if the first three quarters don’t matter as much as the fourth, when time is precious and the desperation for victory is greater. It is true that the other quarters don’t usually have the intensity of the fourth, but to say they don’t matter is to miss how exhaustive basketball can be.
“Exhaustive,” in the sense that in every game, especially those as intense as the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, a player has to pull out most of his or her moves to beat focused and motivated defenders. From the tip-off, a sort of chess game begins, in which great players go through their arsenal of skills and defenders react to them. If one move is unsuccessful, then the attacker tries another the next time down the court. If the next is unsuccessful, then maybe the match-up is changed and the cycle repeats. Having more than 100 possessions per game game means having to constantly be creative to generate points.
That exhaustive process peaks in the latter stages of the fourth, but the importance of those other quarters is exemplified by LeBron. It’s in finding out what can and can’t be successful against an opponent to create the best chance for success at the end.
The best players aren’t simply attacking instinctively in those early quarters, but instead building a story for how to finish the game. Each move is setting up the next. Some moves are being taken out, others are being saved, and others are decoys. Just as in chess, in which every move is made within a vision of the endgame, basketball’s greatest players are always thinking ahead.
The Lakers beat the Celtics on a shot that LeBron had been saving for the right time. There was no guarantee that the time would come, but LeBron prepared for it anyway. Brown did everything that could be asked of him. He was a victim of something he didn’t see coming, and a reminder that nothing that happens in those big moments is entirely independent. They are shaped from the many small conflicts that preceded them. They are shrines not just to superior athletes, but superior minds.