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Dnowit41
05-07-2009, 03:39 PM
Chris Broussard
ESPN The Magazine
Archive
5/7/09

Before every series the Cleveland Cavaliers play, the first question the opposition must answer is "How are you going to guard LeBron James?" After James poured in 34 points on 12-of-20 shooting in the Cavs' 99-72 Game 1 victory, the Atlanta Hawks are still racking their brains, trying to find an answer.

The Hawks did successfully solve one equation, though: how not to guard James.

WHERE'S THE D?

Atlanta didn't exactly make life difficult for LeBron James in Game 1
Shot Range FGM-FGA PTS
In Paint 9-12 18
Mid-Range 1-2 2
3-Point 2-6 6
FT 8-9 8

Atlanta, which plays Game 2 on Thursday night at The Q, started out with Maurice Evans guarding James solo. All that did was put Evans in foul trouble, as he was whistled twice in the first six minutes. The Hawks then went to Josh Smith and he also picked up two first-half fouls while trying to stay with James.

Here's what Evans and Smith had to show for their troubles: 22 points in James' scoring column by halftime. Perhaps the only positive for Atlanta was that James didn't have any assists. Of course, that's because he was scoring nearly every time he touched the rock.

Obviously, guarding James one-on-one is unwise for most clubs.

During halftime, Atlanta coach Mike Woodson made some adjustments and the Hawks started doubling James in the third quarter. That's when he began dishing, feeding Mo Williams for two 3-pointers in the first five minutes to push a five-point halftime lead to 11. James wound up with 12 points and three assists (all of them on 3-pointers) in the quarter, accounting for 75 percent of the Cavs' offense.

That's the difference between double-teaming James and, say, Dwyane Wade, whom the Hawks doubled with some success in their first-round victory over Miami. While Wade is a good and willing passer, his height (6-foot-4) makes him more vulnerable than the 6-8 James is to double-teams. James passes over the double-team with ease, while Wade, unable to simply pass over two defenders, usually tries to beat the double with the dribble.

Not only does that eat up more shot clock and stop ball movement, but Wade, who averaged 5.3 assists against the Hawks, also usually looks to go to the basket after beating the trap. If he's met in the paint and can't get off a shot, he'll then pass to a teammate, who may or may not be in position to shoot. Beyond that, Wade's inferior supporting cast can't convert his passes into points with the same frequency that James' can. So Atlanta won't have as much success doubling James as it did doubling Wade.

If you can't double James or guard him one-on-one with success, what do you do? Well, at the very least, you must protect the paint. Yet the Hawks failed in that area as well. James went to the basket at will, scoring 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting inside the lane. When James is driving so much, he's obviously going to get to the foul line, where he made 8-of-9 shots in Game 1. The Hawks were slow to rotate into the lane and that can't happen; at the very least, one or two players must be waiting for him near the basket once he beats his man.

There's no way to stop James, but there are ways to make it hard for him. And a team as athletic as the Hawks should be able to do that to some degree. Evans and Smith should be quick enough to make it difficult for James to consistently beat them off the dribble, and their teammates should be quick enough to rotate into the paint and create a wall, forcing him to settle for midrange jumpers or kickouts to shooters. That rarely happened in Game 1, as James took just two midrange shots.

So, how do you guard James?

Mix up double-coverage on him, trapping him at different times and at different spots, and load up in the paint to stop him from getting to the basket. He may rack up plenty of assists that way, but the alternative is giving up 34 points on high-percentage shooting. Maybe his teammates will have an off night. That's a lot more likely than James' missing point-blank shots.

Of course, containing James is easier said than done, but if the Hawks are to have any chance of winning Game 2, they'd better find a way to do it.