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LeBron James’s Final Frontier

Shooting has never been the Cavs star’s strong suit, until now. During the postseason, LeBron has been deadly from outside, changing his game to match the trends of the league.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

As the league around him has evolved, LeBron James hasn’t been a trailblazer for newer versions of basketball so much as a highly effective mirror for what the game has become. Whether in Miami, where he played with pace and in a small lineup, or this season in Cleveland where he’s gone along with the NBA’s 3-pointer craze, James has changed along with the game, in order to dominate it.

LeBron’s latest evolution is taking place this postseason. Throughout his career, he’s been known as many things, but a shooter has never been one of them. Teams have concocted entire game plans to let him chuck from 3, to force him out of his comfort zone. Stats show that last season he was the league’s worst shooter outside of the paint. Shooting has been one of LeBron’s many tools. But it has never been his expertise.

Until these playoffs, that is.

In nine games this postseason, LeBron is shooting a scorching 56 percent from the field and 43.4 percent from 3, the latter on a career-playoff-high 5.9 attempts per game. That 3-point percentage mark is about the same as Steph Curry’s, and better than Kevin Durant’s or that of any Rockets or Cavs player besides Kevin Love who has attempted at least five 3s per game. LeBron is shooting more 3s and making more 3s than ever before. He’s also attempting more than 20 field goals per game while posting his second-best postseason field goal percentage ever. The small-sample-size caveat applies, but if this is what a hot shooting streak for LeBron looks like, there’s no better time for him to have it than right now.

With the Cavaliers down nine points late in the third quarter of Game 3 against the Pacers during Round 1, LeBron pulled up from 32 feet and drained a 3-pointer. About 20 seconds later, he pulled up from 27 feet and hit another one. All he could do was smile and laugh. In both cases, there wasn’t a defender within two feet of him. Nearly 75 percent of LeBron’s attempted 3s in this postseason have come either on open or wide-open shots. Defenders are letting him have that shot. And almost half the time, he’s making them pay.

LeBron would finish the game with six made shots on 12 attempts from behind the arc, bringing the Cavs back from a double-digit deficit to keep the sweep on track. Just over two weeks later, against the Raptors, he would attempt 12 more in that series’ Game 4, draining five of them to close out the presumptive “biggest threat” to Cleveland in the East.

Since the 2008–09 season, LeBron has attempted 12 3s in a regular-season game only twice. In the 2017 playoffs alone, he’s already done it twice.

This season, LeBron was just OK from 3, shooting 36.3 percent on 4.6 attempts per game. He didn’t rely on his deep shot, which has been the case for most of his career. Since LeBron’s first season, he has fluctuated between 2.4 and 5.1 attempts per game during the regular season. In 2012–13, in his third season with Miami, he peaked at 40.6 percent, but only on a selective 3.3 attempts. In the playoffs, his average attempts rises but the range falls, sitting between 3.7 and 5.8 attempts per game. His best postseason averages came during the 2013–14 campaign with the Heat, when he made 40.7 percent of his 4.3 attempted shots per game from behind the arc. There is no precedent for what LeBron is doing in this postseason. Game by game, he’s debunking his own so-called “deficiency.”

Turning weaknesses into strengths is a career-long trait that has continued to make LeBron invincible. When he arrived in Miami, he was wary of playing in the post until being led there by Erik Spoelstra, who helped him see the obvious advantage the Heat had by playing small. Now, instead of trying to go against the 3-point grain that the Warriors and Rockets have created, LeBron is out to reap the benefits of that trend.

A closer look at the numbers this season yields a more comprehensive exhibit of LeBron’s shooting efficiency. His effective field goal percentage (62.0) in these playoffs is the highest of his career, while his true shooting percentage (66.2) is his second-highest mark in the playoffs. His shooting success is not anchored to a specific spot on the court either. James has made half of all corner 3s so far and 19 of 45 from above the break.

Catch-and-shoot players are typically the biggest beneficiaries of playing with LeBron. Surround James with shooters and he’ll get them the ball. (Channing Frye, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, and Kevin Love are all somewhere furiously nodding right now.) But for himself, the catch-and-shoot has not been LeBron’s preferred method in these playoffs. Despite making 50 percent of them, he’s shooting only 1.3 per game. Instead LeBron’s scorching streak is made up of the shots he is creating for himself.

LeBron still has a ton of athleticism, but he’s savvy enough to know that to extend his career and keep pace with the rest of the league, he needs to extend his range. His pull-up 3s have come at a 19.4 frequency rate in the postseason, almost five times more than catch-and-shoot 3s and other types of 3s. He’s made 15 of those 37 pull-up shots.

Only 26 percent of LeBron’s 3-pointers have been assisted, the second-lowest percentage of his career, and he’s hitting the unassisted 3-pointer at a preposterous 73.9 clip, by far the best ever for him. Look at the shot above. LeBron comes around the screen and doesn’t even consider going for the open lane. Instead, he pulls up with no one in front of him and barely even sets his feet before launching it into the net. He kicks his foot up (an ode to Draymond?), exhibiting a type of careless demeanor about shot-making that only he can display.

Making it look easier than it is is an overwrought cliché. But with LeBron, it’s reality.

There is no signature LeBron James play, nothing that makes you say, “That’s him. That’s his move.” There’s the tomahawk breakaway dunk he loves, the chase-down pin block he deployed in Cleveland’s Finals win, and even the eye-opening passes he distributes on a game-to-game basis. But that’s the point. Everything he does is at a high level — marvelous in its own right, though not completely surprising in the context of the fact that he is LeBron James, one of the two best players of all time.

Shooting is his final frontier, so don’t be surprised if you see it more often. The sunset of LeBron’s career is at least within sight. History tells us LeBron will shape-shift, adapt, and own whatever the game of basketball or Father Time throws at him. For now, though, he’s simply shooting his shot. And making it, too.