Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James takes the spotlight.
Context: Just like that, the Lakers are in the driver's seat.
After losing Game 1, the Lakers have won two in a row to take a 2-1 lead in their second-round series with the Houston Rockets. LeBron James led the way in both wins, going for 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in Game 2, followed by 36 points, seven rebounds, five assists and four blocks in Game 3.
James has been doing this for so long now that it's easy to take him flirting with a triple-double or a 40-point game in the playoffs for granted, but to be playing at this level as a 35-year-old in his 17th season is nothing short of remarkable. His passing in particular is as sharp as ever. For the first time in his career, James led the league with 10.2 assists per game during the regular season. That's carried over into the playoffs, with him averaging 9.0 assists through eight games, tying his postseason career high.
While James only had five assists in Game 3, there was one particular pass he made that put his basketball IQ on full display.
Let's take a closer look.
The play: James sets Alex Caruso up for a layup.
Breakdown: James brings the ball up the court following a missed 3-pointer from Ben McLemore.
Almost as soon as he crosses halfcourt, James receives a screen from Markieff Morris, resulting in McLemore switching onto James and Robert Covington switching onto Morris.
It's a more favourable matchup for James. Covington is known more for his help defence than his man-to-man defence, but he's far better equipped to match up with James than McLemore, who doesn't exactly have the reputation of being a defensive stopper. (For what it's worth, McLemore ranked 496th out of 520 players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus this season, whereas Covington ranked 31st. Defensive Real Plus-Minus is far from a perfect measure of good defence, but ... yeah).
James gives the ball up to Caruso but receives it back immediately. His plan? Clear the floor to attack McLemore in isolation.
According to NBA.com, only five players - James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, D'Angelo Russell and Luka Doncic - averaged more isolation points per game than James during the regular season. He ranked in the 59th percentile with 0.90 points per possession, but he's been much more efficient in the playoffs, ranking in the 91st percentile with 1.29 points per possession.
Caruso opens up the left side for James by clearing out, joining Morris and Danny Green on the opposite side of the court.
Morris, however, replaces Caruso on the left wing a few seconds later.
The Lakers now have Green, Morris and Kyle Kuzma spacing the floor on the 3-point line, leaving Caruso to hang out in the dunker spot.
The Rockets started the possession in man-to-man defence, but they're basically in a box-and-one at this point, with McLemore guarding James and Covington, Eric Gordon, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green zoning up to prevent James from getting into the paint if he gets past McLemore.
Sure enough, James is met by Gordon at the elbow when he takes a dribble towards his left. It stops James from getting a straight-line drive to the basket, but it puts pressure on Houston's backline to cover three players with two defenders, those defenders being Covington and Westbrook.
Covington positions himself between Caruso and Kuzma, whereas Westbrook positions himself between Caruso and Green.
Ideally, Westbrook would be in front of Caruso, not behind him.
The Rockets learn why the hard way - when Green rotates over to Kuzma, there's nobody standing between Caruso and the basket when James whips a pass to him.
Westbrook tries to block Caruso's layup, but he's too late.
Why it matters: First of all, what a pass.
The list of players who would even think about threading the needle like that is incredibly slim. In addition to James, you're talking about the likes of Luka Doncic, Chris Paul, James Harden, Nikola Jokic and ... that might be it.
James cranks up the degree of difficulty even further by not even looking at Caruso when he makes the pass. James knew that Green had to make a tough decision between staying on Caruso and rotating over to Kuzma, and he baited him into leaving Caruso by staring directly at Kuzma in the corner.
You can see the moment Green realized the Rockets weren't quite buttoned up enough.
Secondly, James does this a lot.
Usually, having a player stand at the top of the perimeter with the ball in their hands while there is little-to-no movement going on around them is a recipe for disaster, but James thrives in those situations. Without even taking a dribble, he has the attention of all five defenders on the Rockets, with each one of them watching his every move. He bides his time, waiting for them to show their cards before making his move.
It's the culmination of James being in the league for as long as he is. He's seen just about every defence in the book at this stage of his career, to the point where he can dissect teams on the fly. The way he does it is video game-like. If this option, this option and this option isn't available, it means this is.
What separates James from others is that he always seems to be a step ahead of the defence and, well, he's one of the best passers the league has ever seen.
Another sneaky thing about this possession: James knew Green couldn't stay in the paint for more than three seconds. He times his drive perfectly so that Green had to either commit to Caruso or get out of the paint to avoid being called for a three second violation. Either way, it would've resulted in a high percentage shot for the Lakers - a wide open 3-pointer for Kuzma or a layup for Caruso.
It reminds me of a pass James made in his final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers in that regard. I actually broke it down in a similar way to show how he uses his basketball genius to pick teams apart in ways nobody else in the league can.
As I wrote back then, "it's something he's done countless times before, but it's easy to take his greatness for granted when we've seen him do it on a nightly basis for 15 years."
It's crazy to think that we're still watching him do the exact same things two years later - on a team that has a chance to win it all, no less.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.