What's wrong with LeBron James?
Updated: June 12, 2013, 4:37 PM ET
By Kevin Pelton | ESPN Insider
In Tuesday's Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Gary Neal of the San Antonio Spurs had a "podium game" -- an unexpected appearance in the postgame news conference by a role player.
LeBron James had the opposite. Somehow, after scoring 15 points on 7-of-21 shooting in a blowout loss, the league's reigning MVP and Finals MVP wasn't among the Miami Heat players who were brought out to speak to the media.
Clearly, James is off his game. Does that say more about him or the Spurs' defense? Let's take a look at the numbers.
The signs of trouble
The James we've seen in the Finals is very different from the version who led the Heat to a 66-16 record and an Eastern Conference title. James has scored a combined 50 points in the past three games, his lowest three-game stretch of the season. Just twice -- centered on back-to-back games in mid-March in which he combined for 28 points -- had James been held to fewer than 60 points over a three-game stretch this season.
Even when James has slumped as a scorer, rarely has it lasted this long. The last time he was held to fewer than 20 points in three consecutive games was another NBA Finals matchup with a team from Texas -- 2011 against the Dallas Mavericks, when James totaled 42 points in Games 3-5 of the Heat's Finals loss.
Of course, looking at all three games does James a disservice. Through the first two games of the series in Miami, he was making the right plays against a San Antonio defense designed to keep him out of the paint, as reflected by his combined 17 assists. With the glaring exception of the fourth quarter of Game 1, Miami was happy with the results. The attention the Spurs placed on James opened things up for his teammates.
Something different happened in Game 3, particularly after halftime. James handed out five assists, just one of them after halftime -- and that set up a Chris Bosh midrange jumper, not the high-percentage 3-pointers and finishes at the rim the Heat count on him to create.
At the same time, James was less efficient offensively. He shot 7-for-21 (.333) from the field, his third-lowest percentage in any game in 2012-13. Just twice before had James missed at least 14 shot attempts -- a 14-for-31 effort in a January loss at Boston and an 8-for-22 outing at Cleveland in March.
To that, add the incredible stat that James failed to reach the free throw line for the first time since December 2009. According to Basketball-Reference.com, James had been held without a foul shot eight times before in his career -- half of them during his rookie season.
When the inaccurate shooting is combined with the missing free throws, James' true shooting percentage during Game 3 (.357) was not only his worst of the season (previously .412 in a January loss at Portland) but also his worst since -- you guessed it -- the 2011 Finals, when his eight-point Game 4 produced a .312 true shooting percentage.
Diagnosing the problem
There are two factors in James' poor shooting numbers in this series: the types of shots he's getting and the rate at which he's hitting those shots.
We can assess the former by looking at the percentage of James' shots that have come from various spots on the floor, according to NBA.com/stats. By walling off the paint, San Antonio has taken the Indiana Pacers' effort to keep James away from the rim one step further. After taking 41.3 percent of his shots in the restricted area around the basket during the regular season, James got just 35 percent of his shots there in the Eastern Conference finals. During this series, that's all the way down to 28.3 percent.
On the rare occasions James has gotten to the rim -- often in transition -- he's actually making his attempts at a better rate than usual. James is 12-of-15 (.800) there in this series, superior to his .750 accuracy around the basket in the regular season. But because James is so much better at the rim than anywhere else on the floor, limiting his attempts is more important than cutting down on his percentage.
The extra shots have been shifted outside, although maybe not as far as you think. More than any other spot, James has increased his attempts from inside the paint but outside the restricted area. (Surprisingly, James didn't take more of these shots than usual against Roy Hibbert and the Pacers.) Despite their relative closeness, those aren't usually great shots; James made them at an even 50 percent clip during the regular season. He's also taking slightly more 3-pointers and midrange jumpers.
If James were making these same shots at his regular-season rates, he would be shooting 51.9 percent from the field in this series -- down from his 56.4 percent mark from the regular season but also far better than the 38.9 percent he's actually shooting.
That analysis suggests the bigger problem for James is shot making, not the shots he's taking. Besides the rim area, James has been less accurate from every location on the court in the Finals than during the regular season.
Location RS FGA% Finals FGA% RS FG% Finals FG%
Restricted area .413 .283 .750 .800
Paint (non-RA) .102 .170 .500 .222
Midrange .298 .321 .432 .235
3-pointers .188 .227 .406 .250
At this point, the explanation starts to become more of a guessing game. If the Spurs are giving James open midrange jumpers by playing off him defensively and going under screens, why would he make them at a lower rate than he usually does against more defensive pressure?
Part of the issue might be that James is making these plays off the dribble or from a standstill rather than in the flow of the offense. None of the six makes he has from between the restricted area and the 3-point line has come off a catch-and-shoot situation. Then again, based on his regular-season rates, only one of those shots would have been set up by an assist. So this difference is probably not meaningful.
Teammate Dwyane Wade pointed out after the game that San Antonio's strategy may be causing James to second-guess himself.
"Their defensive scheme, it's to go under a lot of the pick-and-rolls, to play off a lot," Wade said. "And when they do that, you have the shot most of the time. So it takes away some of your aggressiveness at times, because you have the shot that you can make in your sleep and you're like, 'I'm going to shoot it,' and then it don't go in. But you have to keep shooting it."
For a player of James' caliber, continuing to shoot when open is the only choice. Miami has to hope that his shots go in at their usual rate starting in Game 4.
Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus