WASHINGTON — LeBron James has played in 1,287 games, including the playoffs. But he has never played a game like Friday night.
Not just because the 57 points he scored in an early-season statement game were the second most of his career. He has never been as dominant or as focused playing out of the post as he was in the clinic he displayed in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 130-122 victory over the Washington Wizards.
Since James reached legal drinking age more than a decade ago, there have been calls for him to develop into a back-to-the-basket player. He didn’t become interested in it until 2011, however, when he spent time during the NBA lockout working with Hakeem Olajuwon, bringing a camera crew to tape the sessions so he could refer to them later.
He has improved over the years, but it has come slowly. His body and skill set — James is ambidextrous, the sort of talent that makes him a dream post player — make it seem as if he should live there. But his nature is to play on the perimeter and to create on the move; it’s how he has played since he was a young boy. It’s how he has become one of the greatest players of all time.
Recently, though, James has been focusing on it again. Specifically, those turnaround fading shots he made over and over and over on the Wizards. It’s the sort of shot Michael Jordan added to his game right about this time, mid-30s with his athleticism starting to fade.
“I work on my game every day and the shots that I was taking, pretty much all of them I work on,” James said. “I’ve been working quite a bit on my turnarounds and my fadeaways and my footwork, things of that nature, and I was able to get to it. Once I fade, I really don’t see the defender as much, and I’m just focusing on the target.”
James was 7-of-10 on post-ups against the Wizards, easily one of the greatest post-up games of his career. He made 14 baskets in the restricted area, the most of his career. He made 23 field goals, also a career high.
In James’ previous 10 games of 50 points or more, he averaged five 3-pointers. James has been a streaky outside shooter forever; when he’s on, those types of huge scoring nights can happen. This time, he made only two 3-pointers. It was all an inside attack.
“A lot of people want him to do that all the time, right?” said Dwyane Wade, who was playing alongside James in March 2014 when he put up a career-best 61 points for the Miami Heat.
“They say, ‘Why doesn’t he do that all the time?’ That’s a lot of wear and tear in that paint. He plays on top of the key because he’s a pass-first guy. But tonight he knew no one could guard him and we needed it. He put on a clinic.”
It’s important to state, this was an outlier game.
It’s not as if this is a “new” James. The Wizards allowed him to get on smaller defenders. He totally worked John Wall, scoring seven baskets on him. He made 5 of 6 shots with Bradley Beal on him. Washington elected not to be aggressive in double-teaming James often, despite the Cavs deploying some lineups without much of an outside shooting countermeasure.
But it can be instructive at times when the Cavs are struggling and need James to switch things up. Playing James in the post inverts the offense and can open options for Isaiah Thomas when he comes back from injury. In a post-Kyrie Irvingworld where things might not come as easily for the Cavs offensively, this sort of changeup being in James’ repertoire could truly prove valuable.
Whether he could ever come close to recreating the success he had Friday is a mystery. But if he were willing to try it a little more often, it could unlock a new act in his offensive career.
James reached 29,000 career points in the win and a huge amount of those have been scored on muscle drives to the rim, midrange jumpers from elbows and raining 3-pointers from the wing. If by the time he becomes the youngest to hit 30,000 points, in a few months assuming good health, his scoring pie chart is altered to reflect more turnarounds from the midpost and indefensible fades from the baseline, well, this Cavs season could still get pretty interesting.
“As I’ve grown as a basketball player,” James said, “I’m staying disciplined with my shot, disciplined with my balance and every shot that I took it feels like it was going in.”