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The dunks and driving layups are familiar to opponents, and the 3-pointer is no surprise. But now LeBron James is unleashing yet another shot.
He has launched 33 of them in the postseason and made 19 – a success rate of 57.6% that frustrated the Indiana Pacers, demoralized the Toronto Raptors and, with James and the Cleveland Cavaliers set to play the Boston Celtics Sunday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, left some people wondering about the origin of James’ newest weapon.
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James traces its evolution to the summer of 2011, following his first season with the Miami Heat. He felt the sting of the Heat losing in the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks.
“I wasn’t that good of a player in that series,’’ James said recently. “I wasn’t a complete player.”
So that summer, he worked on his low-post game, incorporating the fadeaway more frequently into his array of shots.
In the 2010-11 regular season, James took 65 fadeaways, and in 2011-12 he almost doubled his attempts to 116, according to NBA.com. As he expanded his game offensively, he became more difficult to defend – and the Heat became more difficult to stop.
That next season the Heat won the NBA championship, and won yet another the following year.
“I pretty much know the scouting report on me is going to be to dare me to shoot jump shots and keep me out of the paint, not allow me to go to the free-throw line,” James said. “Over the course of my career, I just try to put a lot of work into other facets of my game to try to neutralize their game plan.
“I work extremely hard on my jump shot and in a few years after my first year in Miami, I started working on my post game in ways I could score in the post and be just very efficient.”
To fully appreciate James’ fadeaway, it’s worth tracing his development as a shooter to 2006. That year, four years after the Cavaliers drafted James with the No. 1 pick in the draft, he got a full-time shooting coach when Chris Jent joined Cleveland’s staff.
“My approach early was restructuring form, doing things from the ground up initially,’’ said Jent, who noted that James had a habit of shifting his shoulders that resulted in shots coming up short. “He played with such velocity and and speed, we tried to make sure when he left his feet, he stayed in the same plane (during the shot).’’
Over two seasons, Jent said, James’ developed a new foundation for his array of shots, which Jent said already included the fadeaway.
“He’s always been very comfortable with that turnaround,’’ said Jent, who worked with James until James left for Miami in 2010 and is now an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks. “One thing we worked on a lot was kind of like Hakeem (Olajuwon) used when I played with him in Houston.
“Hakeem would really reach back with his back foot so he’d gain an extra level of separation like the shot LeBron hit against (Pascal) Siakam.’’
Jent was referring to the over-the-backboard shot in Game 4 of the Toronto series, when James had to clear the outstretched right arm of Siakam, a 6-9 forward.
“By reaching back with that left foot, now you’ve got that knee to keep the guy off of you,’’ Jent said. “It’s more like a one-footed shot. And again, LeBron’s so strong, he can shoot that from far.’’
But Jent said James’ penchant for passing initially may have deterred his use of the fadeaway.
“He loves that vision where he can throw like those baseball passes and he can play chest up to the rim or he can see everything,’’ Jent said. “And I just don’t think early he felt as though he had as much vision with his back to the basket, like he had as many passing options down there.’’
But as James acknowledged, the Heat’s loss to in the 2011 NBA Finals spurred him to expand his shooting repertoire. Or in James’ preferred vernacular, add “different things in my toolbox.”
Mike Miller, who played with James in Miami for three seasons and one season in Cleveland, was in unique position to watch that toolbox fill up. Miller said James, 33, has used the fadeaway not only to diversify his game, but also to conserve energy in a way that will extend his career.
“In the past, he had to grind for every basket,’’ said Miller, now an assistant coach at the University of Memphis. “And now there’s a lot less grind to it. At this age, where he’s at, how many seasons and games that he’s played, it’s big.
“I think ‘Bron’s very strategic in everything he does. He understands his body better than anybody. He trains and works his body better than anybody and he’s going to have to find ways to implement things like this.’’
Bobby Ferry, a longtime NBA executive and scout, said one reason he marvels at the fadeaway is that shooting is merely a piece of James’ game. In the playoffs, James is averaging 34.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game.
“A lot of these great shooters got fadeaways and this and that and everything else,’’ Ferry said. “But they’re shooting first.
“Certainly (James) can shoot the ball. But he’s not only doing that. He’s thinking pass at the same time.’’
As the Pacers and Raptors can attest, however, James also will lock in and launch the fadeaway. Against the Toronto Raptors in Game 2, for example, he made 7-of-11 fadeaways, each one seemingly more improbable than the last.
Toronto’s players shook their heads in disbelief after each bucket, and James realizes those shots have a bigger impact than registers on the scoreboard.
“Yes, two points is two points,’’ he said. “But when you get to our stage, some two points change the momentum of a game.”
The opposing team’s hopes of stopping James and the Cavaliers starts to, well, fadeaway.