LeBron James excelled on both sides of the pick-and-roll in Friday’s big win over the Bucks

LeBron James has been one of the NBA’s top pick-and-roll ball handlers for nearly two decades, and for two seasons he and Anthony Davis managed the game’s most feared iteration in all of basketball. The James Davis Two Man Dance was, at best, defensive. Blitz James and he slides a pocket pass into Davis for a four-on-three. Switch and one of them will kill the mismatch. Help with his drive and the biggest lob catcher in league history ends in a dunk. Flip the low-man away from the corner and the Lakers have an open 3.

It was the backbone of the Laker offense as they won the 2020 championship, a final move no defense could counter in the dying minutes of close games. And since the Lakers traded to Russell Westbrook, it’s been almost completely detoxified. The Lakers lost a close game to the Portland Trail Blazers — one of the worst defenses in the NBA — largely because Jusuf Nurkic ignored Westbrook to defend the James Davis pick-and-roll 3-on-2.

Modern spread pick and roll places a heavy emphasis on the word “spread”. The defense tries desperately to ignore their worst shooters. Westbrook becomes invisible off the ball. The game that helped the Lakers win a championship had been resolved.

The Lakers have worked on solutions and changed over the past year. Westbrook served as a screener for James for a full game last season before relinquishing those duties. The Westbrook-Davis combination has been successful lately. But Laker’s ballhandlers have averaged just .786 points per possession in pick-and-roll this season, placing them just in the third percentile in the league. Those numbers look better when you include passing, and their big men fared much better as scooters, but the days of unleashing the James Davis two-man war machine on unsuspecting opponents are largely gone . With James missing so much time earlier this season through injury, they hadn’t developed any alternatives yet.

But Friday was a promising step in the right direction for James. The traditional spread pick-and-roll he once did with Davis may still be weakened by Westbrook’s presence, but the Lakers found a few creases that worked far better, and they didn’t just limit themselves to what James was doing with could do the ball in his hands. For a second-quarter stretch, the Lakers used James primarily as a screener for Westbrook.

The concept is deceptively simple. Westbrook can’t affect the distance with the ball in his hands because a screen gives him a clean runway to the basket. The defense needs to recognize the threat he poses as a driver, but the screen’s confusion creates space for the screener to turn a quick pass into a play. And when that screener is LeBron James, there’s little viable defense solution. You can’t help him if he rushes towards the basket because he would simply turn the ball into a big into the spot of the dunker or a cutter. The main non-shooter on the ground has lifted his shooting restrictions by beginning possession with the ball in his hands. In this case, Westbrook shoves the pass into James with only Wes Matthews in front of him. Khris Middleton can’t commit to the edge because Austin Reaves is in the corner ready to hit the 3 that James would create for him if he does.

This is where Westbrook’s reflexes come into play. Check out this next game, a fairly similar concept based mostly on speed of the pass.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is ready to help Wenyen Gabriel, but Westbrook sneaks the pass in in one shot faster than most ball handlers would. James is already on the move and the former Defensive Player of the Year is unstoppable. Deviating from modern pick-and-roll norms, both screens used by James in the above plays came in the arc. These weren’t spread pick and rolls in the traditional sense. It was close-range, two-man action designed to take advantage of the fact that James and Westbrook can react faster than a defense.

James and Davis expanded on this concept in the fourth quarter. Instead of setting up their pick and rolls at the top of the key with three shooters spreading the ground, they went the other way. Davis looked for James in the corner, deep inside the arc, and that shrank the ground so much the Bucks didn’t have time to react defensively.

This is a dead game for 99 percent of ball handlers. Almost everyone else just stares Antetokounmpo in the face and passes the ball back out. But again, we’re talking LeBron James here. He sneaks a pass in the inch between the two defenders and by doing it so close to the basket Davis has already established a position and closes through Antetokounmpo’s touch. The next time they run it, Antetokounmpo is tied so close to Davis that James can rise above the much smaller Matthews for the relatively clean jumper.

And of course sometimes a defense can get it right and still fail, because once again we’re talking about LeBron. Sometimes he’ll take down Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis at the same time because he’s LeBron James and he can do it.

This isn’t James, the offensive monopoly we’ve seen so many times in big games. It’s James the Chameleon who can blend into virtually any offense color that is required. He excelled as a screener for Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. He can ride downhill in a splayed pick-and-roll just as easily as he can navigate tight quarters from the side. Get him the ball in the short roll and he essentially becomes a version of Draymond Green who can score consistently. Ignore his big men for a second and he gets layups. Even Antetokounmpo couldn’t help but express his admiration for the James-Davis pairing after the game.

“They have two Hall of Famers running pick and roll, it’s obviously hard to stop,” the Milwaukee star said. “Especially when the guy that’s coming out of the pick and roll is one of the best players that’s ever played and the guy that’s going to roll the dice is one of the best lob threats and a big man in the league is. Two against two, low pick and roll, it’s just hard.”

The trio of James, Westbrook and Davis would never fit together so easily. Their abilities overlap in ways that can’t always be planned away. The things they lack are expensive to find on the open market. But simply put, they are all-star players with special talents who can shine under the right circumstances, even under less than ideal conditions. LeBron’s ability to vacillate between roles helped bring out the best in Davis and Westbrook on Friday. It wasn’t the same deadly pick-and-roll that gave the Lakers a championship, but it was good enough to beat one of the NBA’s best teams.

And that’s enough for now.

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