Last night's Game 4 between the Heat and Nets came down to a three-play sequence that was laced with a fun bit of irony. With just under two minutes to go, game tied at 94, the Heat—the team paced throughout the night by its star cannon-balling his way to 49 points—rode out the game's crisis point with a set play that sprung Chris Bosh for a wide-open corner three. The Nets—the team that won Game 3 behind a multi-faceted offense, with 15 made threes, 26 assists, and six players in double digits—tried to ride it out with two brainless isolations for Joe Johnson against, of all people, LeBron James. Trust in the team's offensive machinery for the hero; hero ball for the sucker left holding the bag, and the ball.
So the game was decided by one gorgeous possession sandwiched between two that were dogshit—but that doesn't quite cover it. LeBron is perfectly capable of being the human battering ram, taking the punishment, going to the rim over and over and over, right past whatever debris is left of Paul Pierce. And he did go to the rim, and he passed, but it just some binary shoot/pass determination. Watch the play one more time, and then read LeBron's postgame comment to ESPN's Brian Windhorst about his decision-making in that moment:
"When KG came off of CB, I already knew what was about to happen, I knew [the ball] was going to find to CB," James said. "There's a lot that goes through my mind in a basketball game. Sometimes it gets me in trouble because there's so much that I'm reading and reacting, going through plays in my mind that haven't even happened yet."
It isn't just that LeBron was already thinking two steps ahead as the play was unfolding, it's that he had the foresight to set the whole thing in motion toward an inevitable end. Right at that moment, LeBron was engulfed in flames, and here he was five feet away from the rim with the ball in his hands. Go up strong, put the ball on the rim, maybe get a foul. That's easy. But LeBron wasn't just reading where the help was coming; he was working through variations in his head, drawing from a photographic recall—seriously, the guy's genius—of how Garnett played him not just these past three games, but on specific drives from specific games in series that happened years ago (before the game, he'd been casually referencing Game 4 of the 2011 Celtics series).
So he took one more dribble, dug down into the lane, knowing it would draw KG farther away from Chris Bosh, and whipped the ball back out to Mario Chalmers, who, he trusted, would know what to do with it. Deron scrambles to cover the shooter, KG's knees can't close fast enough to do anything about Bosh, and the Heat go up three.
It's that extra dribble that contains all of LeBron's brilliance. He fired it off with no hesitation, no hurry, the kind of surety in motion that comes from believing in your decision, because it isn't really a decision. Without it, there's a good chance Garnett is able to dart back into the corner to close out on Chris Bosh, turning a great shot into a questionable one. There was a Manningish quality to LeBron's move; it was akin to a brief shrug of the shoulders or flick of the eyes that buys just enough daylight between the safety and the receiver. It was slight, but it meant everything.
When we talk information in sports, player-tracking, possession efficiency, anything that isn't just toothless fun, this play is the ideal outcome—a 250-pound server farm bounding down the lane, crunching informed probabilities at light speed. LeBron is the organic embodiment of every efficiency the nerds hope to affect. Remember, this is the guy who was spotted running to his spots faster than the "ideal" defense the first time we got a real look at SportVU. It's insufficient to say that LeBron is a machine; he's better than the damn machines.
Then there's poor Joe Johnson, who is infuriating and often bad, but last night found himself digging those possessions out of his ass because Paul Pierce, despite coming up with some plays late, was essentially lying disemboweled and dead after a night of LeBron beating the shit out of him. For him, we know that he is an above average isolation and post-up player, despite how awful it is to watch, and that LeBron spent this year slagging on defense, right in the middle of the pack, per Synergy Sports, on isolation and post-up defense. He wasn't working with the same weaponry as LeBron, but the "See if you can foul LeBron out, and maybe score" was as far removed from the Heat offense's stratosphere as Johnson is from LeBron's.
That isn't necessarily a knock on Johnson. LeBron is just fantastic. He's good enough to render the debate between hero ball and team basketball obsolete. For the Heat, the answer is just to always give the ball to LeBron. He'll figure it out.