Philips Arena in Atlanta has become known as the “Highlight Factory” thanks to the aerial artistry of the young, high-flying Hawks but on Saturday night LeBron James swooped in and made the “Highlight Factory” his personal showcase. James dropped 47 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists as the Cleveland Cavaliers won 97-82 to take a 3-0 series lead. The only other player in NBA history to put up at least 45-10-8 in a playoff game is Michael Jordan.
This is of course not the first time that James silenced a road crowd with a signature playoff performance; he authored one of the most memorable games in playoff history on May 31, 2007 when he hit the Detroit Pistons with 48 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in a 109-107 game five win that helped propel the Cavs to their first NBA Finals appearance. James has now scored at least 45 points in four playoff games and three of those games took place on the road. Among active players, only Allen Iverson (seven) and Kobe Bryant (five) have posted more 45 point playoff games than James but both Iverson (four) and Bryant (three) have had more such games at home than on the road. A 45 point playoff game is usually a good thing for a team no matter where it takes place: the Cavs are 3-1 in James’ 45 point playoff games, while Iverson’s 76ers went 6-1 and Bryant’s Lakers have gone 4-1.
Most NBA players tend to perform better at home than on the road but in each of the past four seasons James has averaged more points on the road than in the friendly confines of the Q; in 2008-09, he scored 31.5 ppg in 41 road games and 25.4 ppg in 40 home games, though he did shoot better from the field at home (.502) than on the road (.479). James has scored at least 40 points in 33 regular season games, 20 of which took place on the road. His nine best scoring games—topped by his 56 points at Toronto on March 20, 2005 and including all seven of his 50 point games—all took place on the road; his regular season scoring high in Cleveland is 47 points.
It seems as if James understands that most players are less comfortable on the road, so he takes pressure off of his teammates by very aggressively looking for his shot away from home. This places opponents in a no win situation, because if they single cover James he is willing and able to score 40-plus points but if they trap him then he will feed his teammates for wide open shots. The Hawks have yet to solve this conundrum,as James is killing them with both his scoring/shooting (36.0 ppg, .610 FG%, .476 3FG%) and his floor game (5.3 apg, 1.3 tpg).
During game three, the Hawks were noticeably reluctant to trap James because he has proven that he will make the right pass out of double-teams and, just as importantly, his teammates have proven that they can make open shots; therefore, the Hawks simply switched on screen/roll plays, which gave James the opportunity to repeatedly shoot over the much shorter Mike Bibby.
It will be interesting to see what adjustment—if any—the Hawks make regarding this strategy. Will they single cover James, banking on him not continuing his hot shooting, or will they aggressively trap him and force guys like Mo Williams, Delonte West and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to make open jump shots? The Cavs are almost impossible to guard effectively for long stretches now because James has improved his shooting touch and GM Danny Ferry has surrounded James with a deep roster of players who can make open shots if James is trapped.