EARLIER THIS MONTH, facing a near double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter against a San Antonio Spurs team that had already beaten the Los Angeles Lakers twice this season, LeBron James took over.
At first, the dominance was familiar: James streaking across the open court, plowing by a hapless defender for the and-1, slapping his biceps for effect; James coming up with a sudden surge of energy to turn a lazy San Antonio pass into a steal, and then passing the ball to a wide-open teammate on the fast break after pushing it up the court.
And then — three times — there was LeBron’s latest finishing move: the step-back 3-pointer that he is taking and making at a rate not seen before in his 16-year career.
From 28 feet away, with 7 minutes, 11 seconds to go, to bring L.A. from down four to down one? Good. From 36 feet, with 5:26 remaining, to go from down two to up one? Bang. From 29 feet, with 1:13 left, to double L.A.’s lead from three points to six and salt the win away? Money.
“Once I’m in the gym, I’m in my range,” James told ESPN.
“It’s not a confidence thing,” said James, who shot 29 percent from 3-point territory his rookie season, the jump shot considered the lone weakness in his game when he entered the league. “It’s a work-ethic thing. You put in the work, and then you trust it when you get on the floor. I work on it when we got practice. And when you work on stuff and you put the work in, [you get results]. And for me, I put the work in. That’s just a byproduct of it.”
Much to Antoine Walker’s chagrin, making a shot way out there still awards the shooter the same 3 points had he made it two feet closer — there are no 4s. So, simply, why launch from Orange County when James can surely create a shot from, say, the Hollywood sign?
We’re playing Houston the other night, they got guys pulling up for 35-foot shots,” said Dallas Maverickscoach Rick Carlisle. “Just in the regular flow of the game. And that’s becoming the norm. There really is no 3-point line. I mean, there is, but where guys are shooting from now, they’re shooting out there because people are meeting 3-point shooters at the line. So they’re backing up and then, you tell me, how are you going to stop James Harden and Eric Gordon from driving the ball? When you’re closing out on them from 33, 34 feet out, it’s very difficult.”
Indeed, the average 3-point distance in the league this season is 25.14 feet. That’s on pace to become the farthest it has been in the past 10 seasons, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. So James isn’t the only one loving the long ball.
The NBA 3-point line is 22 feet away from the rim at its closest, in the corners of the court, and 23.75 feet away from the farthest distance out past the top of the key. The distance of James’ average 3-point shot this season is 26 feet — more than 2 feet beyond the longest spot on the line.
So is this just a natural evolution of the pace-and-space game? Or is there something more personal to James’ 3-point journey?
DURING JAMES’ LAST four seasons in Cleveland, multiple Cavs sources put James’ deep 3s in one of two categories: Either it was a sign of him being in a great groove, looking to land a dagger and light up the crowd, or it was just the opposite, LeBron launching from out there almost out of protest by how his teammates were approaching the game, as if to say, “OK, you want to play that way? Fine, I’ll just keep bombing from 30.”
The result, according to one source: “When he’s pissed off, when he makes it, it’s a great shot. When he misses it, he’s mad anyway, so he doesn’t care.”
There is a flex that comes with taking a long 3. It’s an unspoken declaration: The conventional rules don’t apply to me. For James, it’s more: I deserve to take these, too.
How far will he go with it?
“I don’t think he is trying to be Steph Curry at this point in his career,” said a Western Conference scout.
After more than a decade in the NBA with no natural rival, Curry has proven to be the defining foil in James’ career.
Beyond beating James to win three of the past four NBA Finals, including the past two years straight, Curry has spearheaded the 3-point explosion that changed the league.
While James will never be a marksman of Curry’s caliber — Curry has never shot less than 41 percent from 3-point territory and is currently hitting 49 percent this season — James is hitting a respectable 37.1 percent this season (up from a career average of 34.4 percent) on the highest volume of his career. That’s better than the likes of J.J. Redick, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.