During the closing minutes of Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday night, we got to see a passage of play that may well define the series. With a two-point lead, LeBron James had the ball for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He got into the paint, the Warriors defense collapsed, and he fired a pass to Kyle Korver, who missed. The Warriors collected the rebound, got the ball to Kevin Durant, who dribbled up court and fired in a 3-pointer.
The Warriors had the lead, and they never gave it up. They now lead the series three games to zero, and have the possibility to go 16-0 in the playoffs if they put the Cavaliers away in Game 4.
LeBron will be criticized for that play. He already is being criticized. Most of that criticism is foolish, of course (as is most criticism of LeBron), but there is an inkling here about something James can perhaps do better.
He needs to understand that, at the end of games, sometimes the right play isn’t what is needed.
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More often than not, LeBron James is going to make the right basketball play. He is a savant, someone who instinctively understands the game, someone who sees the way the court is opening up and can pick out exactly where the basketball needs to go.
We saw that on that play discussed above: James drove the ball to the hoop, drew the defense like he’s supposed to do, and then fired an inch-perfect pass to Korver, one of the better 3-point shooters in the league, in the corner. It was absolutely, 100%, the right basketball play. James drew the defense and found the open man, a great shooter, in a perfect spot.
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Durant took the ball the other way and, without hesitation, didn’t make the correct basketball play. He didn’t put the offense into motion. He didn’t set anything up. If it was anyone else alive aside from maybe Stephen Curry, it would be regarded as an absolutely terrible basketball play. Durant ran up court, pulled up from deep and jacked a 3-pointer in the face of LeBron James.
Who is right here? Is it James, for running the offense correctly, beating his man, and finding an open teammate in the corner? Or is it Durant, for throwing caution to the wind and stepping up and making the shot of his life?
Well, it’s complicated.
As James pointed out in his press conference after the game, if Korver’s shot goes in and Durant’s doesn’t, the narrative is the complete opposite today. He didn’t put it in these words, but the following is true: If Korver makes his shot, LeBron is the savvy, genius player who made the perfect pass, and Durant is the greedy fool who jacked up a shot before he could get the best offense in the league set up.
That’s not what happened. And so today we read the opposite: LeBron was passive and couldn’t live for the moment, while Durant was the killer who went for the jugular. Once again, we’re left debating if LeBron has what it takes.
(Of course, we debated the same thing for Durant when he was on a team that wasn’t perhaps the greatest NBA roster ever assembled, but whatever.)
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Though I will say that Durant instinctively understood something that goes beyond making the right play and is a truth of late-game NBA basketball, especially in the playoffs. Sometimes the right basketball play isn’t the right basketball play. Sometimes a team is better off with its star player taking the ball into his own hands and making that shot.
The reason people talk about Michael Jordan so much (and yes, it's out of control at this point) is because he understood this. He took some terrible late-game shots, but he’s Michael Jordan, so they always seemed to go in.
Though, it has to be said, Jordan also made the right basketball play in some instances, and it just happened to work out, again, because he’s Michael Jordan. If Steve Kerr had missed that famous 3-pointer in Game 6 with the Bulls, would we say that Jordan shrunk from the moment?
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Durant’s 3-pointer, which I’m sure will become a big moment we remember, was a pretty silly play. He said he saw James’ feet behind the 3-point line, but I mean, it’s still LeBron James, it’s still that moment, and it’s still pulling up for a 3-pointer when you’ve got the best offense in the league.
It was a silly play, but in late-game situations, you need that bit of audacity. You need to do the unexpected. The wrong play, when the game is on the line, might be exactly what is needed.