- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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Calling them defensively innovative would draw smirks from even their die-hard fans. Yet they may indeed be shaping league policy on one salient front: how to guard LeBron James in the playoffs. Or at least try to guard.
Now, the Wizards have not done all that well. In fact, heading into Thursday's Game 3, James is averaging 32.3 points in his 12 career playoff games against Washington. But the principles they are now employing eventually may be considered the new "LeBron Rules."
The Wizards are playing rough, invoking the Detroit "Bad Boys" on more than one occasion and not saying they're sorry for knocking James on his backside as much as possible. Have other teams tried to send messages to James with hard fouls before? Sure. But not to this level and with this much apparent conspiracy, according to the man himself.
"I've been put on the floor before, but it has been a little different this year," James said. "Hard fouls happen, but this is a difference."
Last season, the San Antonio Spurs gave James his most humbling moments as a pro during the NBA Finals, when they went under pick-and-rolls and dropped their big men to encourage James to shoot midrange jumpers. It was a weak spot in his game and it showed as he struggled to score, shooting 32 percent, and the Cavs were swept home.
The LeBron Rules
In 2006, ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan wrote about the "hard sportsmanship fouls" the Wizards laid on LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs. Story
James noticed and despite a busy summer schedule he went right to work trying to answer it. His workout routine was intense and by the time his Team USA service came around he looked like a sharpshooter, hitting 70 percent from the field. It carried over into the season.
His 3-point shooting is still suspect; he had the second-worst percentage of his career this year (31.5). But his development on a weak spot, the midrange jumper, showed through as he shoot a career-high 48.4 percent from the field during the regular season and won his first-ever scoring title.
So as the Wizards prepared to deal with him for a third consecutive postseason, they had to try to find another way. They don't have any Bruce Bowen clones anyway and allowing James to take 15- to 18-footers would be just what James now wants. So they focused on another weakness. In fact, it just may be the greatest weakness still in James' offensive game considering he'll never be asked to be a 3-point marksman: foul shooting.
James made just 71 percent of his free throws this season, the second-worst percentage of his career. In April, when the Cavs started playing vital games as they struggled to secure home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, he shot just 66 percent. It was also when the Wizards' advance scout and assistant coaches were watching closely as they prepped postseason reports.
"I haven't been a good free-throw shooter since I came into the NBA," James admitted this week.
The Wizards, and others, have noticed. They also know that just fouling James isn't as simple as it sounds. A pure power driver who is ambidextrous -- he is left-handed, but plays right-handed so he can easily finish with either hand around the rim -- just putting in a "no layup rule" isn't enough. This season James was second in the NBA with 87 "and 1s" in 75 games.
So Jordan and his coaches told the players that fouling James whenever he came in the paint was the plan. And not just a slap. The idea was to hit, pound, and perhaps even shove James to the ground if possible. Not only would it force James to earn the points at the line, it matched the classic strategy of turning up the physicality in the playoffs to upgrade the wear and tear.
The Wizards players have listened. From Andray Blatche to Caron Butler to Brendan Haywood, who was ejected for a flagrant foul on James in Game 2. All of them have smashed James and drawn the ire of Cavs' coach Mike Brown and the rest of the team's fan base.
But here is the thing: it has sort of worked. James is just 18-of-33 in the series from the stripe. He's still been masterful, but mostly because of how he has handled the ball with 16 assists and just two turnovers. James has also shredded the Wizards' defense a bunch with easy baskets, which is bound to happen considering they still are suspect at that end of the floor. But it may not be so easy if the Cavs advance to a possible meeting with the Celtics, who are closely watching these proceedings as well.
"It's not entrapment," Jordan said in defending his strategy. "We've carried out the game plan. Look, first of all we want to stay in front of LeBron so he won't get to the paint, leave his feet and finish at the rim. We're not going to allow him to drive the ball then foul him. At the end of the day when it's LeBron leaving his feet, we don't want to give him an easy layup. Hopefully we're going to be professional and just hold him down so we make sure he earns it at the free throw line."
In an effort to protect James from getting hurt with this newer and more intense style, Brown has fired back at the strategy in the media and to officials during the games. He's pointed out that James seems to shoot free throws better in the clutch. Which is true. This season in the final five minutes of games when neither team was ahead by five or more points, James' free-throw percentage jumped to 80 percent. Brown hasn't flinched in putting the ball in James' hands when he knows the opponent is going to foul.
But just like with the midrange shot, the defense likely won't change until he proves he can beat it. Which is why all expect the Wizards, and likely whoever follows them, to continue their new set of rules.
"I'm thinking it is going to continue," James said. "I can handle it. I work hard every day in the summer to make sure my body can handle it. I may not have been mentally able to handle it three or four years ago, but I can handle it now."
Brian Windhorst covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal.
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