Detroit Pistons defensive wizard Tayshaun Prince, all 215 pounds of him, smashed into an immovable, 7-foot-3, 260-pound object named Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The Cleveland Cavaliers big man planted himself adjacent to Prince with the explicit purpose of preventing him from tracking a precocious 21-year-old LeBron James.
This time the culprit was the springy Anderson Varejao, a 6-foot-10 landmine designed to knock off the lanky Prince and free James, who was navigating his maiden postseason voyage in the 2006 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Prince was a long-armed forward with a 7-foot-2 wingspan who gained notoriety when he chased down and blocked a seemingly uncontested layup by Reggie Miller that would have sealed Game 2 of the 2004 Eastern Conference finals. Additional plaudits were heaped on after he guarded Kobe Bryant that June in the Finals and helped lead Detroit to a championship.
Two years later, after James overwhelmed the Washington Wizards in the first round by averaging 35.7 points, Prince shadowed James from end line to end line, relinquishing perimeter looks to stymie drives to the basket. The strategy was a sound one, as James shot just 27.6% from behind the 3-point line in the series.
“At that time, LeBron wasn’t a great shooter, so we could lay off him a bit,” Prince says. “But they ran so many pick-and-rolls to get him open, it became a tough task to stay in front of him. I was giving up 40 pounds and getting pounded on screens from Ilgauskas and Varejao every time down the floor.”
James’ attacks into the paint required constant communication with a Pistons defense anchored by Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace (no relation) — the back line needed to stay alert so those players could sag and clog the middle to force James to give up the ball. It was an exhausting assignment.
“I played the most minutes of anyone on our team because LeBron was playing dang near most of the game,” says Prince, who logged 43.2 minutes per night. James averaged 45.9 minutes.
The Cavaliers fell behind 2-0, but James, who averaged 26.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists, willed his team back into contention, leading Cleveland to three consecutive wins and a Game 7. The veteran Pistons, including Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, chided themselves for taking their foot off the accelerator.
“When they took those three games, were there some emotions in our locker room? For sure,” Prince says. “But was there doubt? None.
“We just said to each other, ‘OK, this 21-year-old kid is carrying his team. Why not just double the guy and live with what everyone else does?’ So we made that adjustment.”
In doing so, the Pistons became the first of only six teams to eliminate James from the postseason. In 13 career playoff appearances, James has advanced to the Finals eight consecutive times and collected three Larry O’Brien trophies.
No wonder as his current team, the Los Angeles Lakers, skidded through the early part of the playoff bubble, oddsmakers blissfully ignored their flaws. A Game 1 playoff loss in the first round to the undermanned Portland Trail Blazers didn’t sway bettors, nor did a Game 1 loss to the Houston Rockets in the second round. The L.A. team draped in purple and gold remained one of the favorites to win it all based on one factor: LeBron James.
No other player has statistically dominated the postseason the way the Lakers’ supernova has. James ranks first all time in playoff games played, minutes, points, steals, field goals and free throws, and ranks in the top five in assists and 3-pointers. He has accumulated the most playoff win shares in NBA history, per Elias Sports Bureau, with 51.1. The man whose legacy he continues to chase, Michael Jordan, is second with 39.8.
As the four-time MVP presses for another title, those who ousted James — the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors among them — reveal how their teams did it, and how the maturation of James has rendered some of their tactics moot.
“LeBron’s biggest evolution is now he’s able to think multiple plays ahead,” former Spurs defensive ace Bruce Bowen says. “The IQ is incredible, not just because he knows out-of-bounds sets, but because he’s learned to get guys the ball exactly where they need it. That growth has to do with leadership — and greatness.”
IT TOOK JAMES only one season to exact his revenge on the Pistons. In the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, he torched Detroit’s vaunted defense for 48 points in a double-overtime Game 5 win, remaining one step ahead of the double-teams and repeatedly setting up Daniel “Boobie” Gibson, who scored 31 in the clinching Game 6 victory for the Cavs.
“The one thing about LeBron — and it’s the reason we lost the next time around — was you could never give a guy like that the same looks year to year,” Prince says. “The guy studied on film what we did to him and was ready for it.
“I always told people, ‘If LeBron scores 40 but you keep him to around five assists or so, you can win,'” Prince says. “But if he has 28 and 12 assists — if you let him dissect the game — you don’t have a chance.”
The Spurs, the Cavs’ opponent in the 2007 Finals, understood that. They unleashed Bowen on James with help from a trio of future Hall of Famers: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
“Back then, LeBron was always trying to get to the hole,” says Robert Horry, a 2007 Spurs alum. “He wanted to dunk on you.
“He didn’t understand the pick-and-roll that well, and he didn’t have the patience of a veteran player. To be honest, he was kind of predictable. Every time they’d try to run the pick-and-roll, we’d put our feet in the paint and dare him to drive, and blow the whole play up.”
James wilted under the unwavering pressure of the Spurs’ defense, shooting 4-of-20 on his 3s and 35.6% overall from the field.
“At the time, he wasn’t confident in his midrange shot,” Bowen says. “And the Cavs were asking him to do things he wasn’t comfortable with. They saw my skinny frame and told him, ‘Go down on the block and take this guy.’ But LeBron hadn’t developed his low-post game yet. They asked him to do too much. And what help did he have?”
Indeed, Gibson crashed back to earth against the Spurs in the Finals, averaging 10.8 points. The Cavs collectively shot 39.5% for the series. It was a pattern that emerged over the course of those early playoff runs: James and a lesser cast versus a deeper, more talented opponent.
A season later in 2008, a bigger, stronger James came up against another Big Three, this time in Celtics green. Future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen paired with Paul Pierce, who, like James, was still in pursuit of his first championship. The two teams collided in the East semifinals, with James and Pierce engaging in an epic clutch battle. Boston didn’t so much stop James as simply outlast him.
Leon Powe, who helped defend James in that series, said then-Celtics coach Doc Rivers laid out specific guidelines — LeBron rules. One was for the Celtics to refrain from crashing the boards on a Boston miss. Once the shot went up, Boston was to immediately retreat.
“Doc wanted all five guys on LeBron,” says Powe, who played AAU basketball with James on the Oakland Soldiers. “We had one guy sprint back to protect the rim, and then the two guys closest to LeBron, regardless of position or size, were supposed to find him and surround him. The last thing you want is LeBron to get the ball and a full head of steam. The best way to stop that? Make him see a crowd.”
James’ inauspicious Game 1 included missing 16 of his 18 shots and turning the ball over 10 times, although he did have nine assists and nine rebounds and got to the line 10 times.
The second directive from Rivers: When James got the ball in the half court, he was not, under any circumstances, to be allowed to go to the middle. Rivers knew that if he did, James’ exceptional court vision would enable him to hit cutters or create his own high-percentage shot. “Force him to the sideline and cut off half the floor!” Rivers implored.
The last LeBron rule, Powe says, was that if James started downhill toward the basket, the Celtics were to foul him. Hard.
“Doc told us, ‘If he’s coming through the key, pop him,'” Powe says. “‘Make sure he knows you are there.’ He wanted no free runs — even if LeBron didn’t have the ball.
“LeBron knew exactly what we were doing. He used to complain to the refs nonstop that we were fouling him.”
In Game 7, James went 14-of-19 from the line and finished with 45 points, but it was Pierce (41 points) who put the game away.
In the 2009 playoffs, James submitted the most prolific postseason series of his career against the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals, averaging 38.5 points and knocking down a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Game 2 to tie the series. But that series signaled the end of the line for the Cavs, again falling prey to a roster that had more talent (Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis).
“We always felt, in those years anyway, that LeBron was more dangerous when he could make other guys better instead of being a flat-out scorer,” former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy says. “He made mediocre guys look pretty good. Our plan was to double-team him as little as possible.”
Unlike the orders Rivers had dished out, Van Gundy instructed his players not to hit James if he had a clear lane to the rim.
“If he was on the break going to the basket, it was impossible to stop him,” Van Gundy says. “I told our guys, ‘Don’t try to foul him — it’s a 3-point play every time.'”
James had another crack at the Celtics in 2010, but following a 3-for-14 shooting performance in Game 5 in which he looked oddly disengaged, critics wondered aloud if he possessed the mental tenacity to lead a team. He rebounded in Game 6 to submit one of his 25 career playoff triple-doubles (27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists), but Cleveland lost.
As the seconds dwindled down, James yanked off his Cavs jersey in frustration. Fifty-six days later, he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach.
LeBron James says it hasn’t sunk in that he is the NBA’s all-time leader in playoff wins and adds that it’s something he “never dreamed of.”
And by 2011, fouls had become a source of frustration for James’ opponents. He averaged 9.9 free throw attempts per game over the previous four seasons, and teams felt James was receiving preferential treatment from the officials. To dissuade his players from harping on that, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle brought his team into the film room before Game 4 of the 2011 Finals and rolled highlights of the Boston Bruins vs. Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Final, which was unfolding simultaneously with the NBA playoffs.
The Canucks were the heavily favored team that benefited from calls. (The Boston Bruins would later upset the Canucks in Game 7 in Vancouver.)
“How many whistles did you hear?” Carlisle asked his team. “Play through the whistle.”
“The point,” says Jason Terry, a key member of that Dallas team, “was that LeBron was going to get a lot of calls, but we couldn’t let that distract us. Coach Carlisle was all about disposition. He wrote that word on the board before every game.”
The Mavericks used Deshawn Stevenson to get physical with James and point guard Jason Kidd, a wily veteran, to exploit James’ tendencies. Shawn Marion was a smooth, agile player who bothered James with his length.
Down 2-1, Carlisle went small, adding JJ Barea to the starting lineup to give the Mavs an extra ball handler who could penetrate and create shots for others. He also implemented assistant Dwane Casey’s suggestion to play zone.
In Game 4, James passed up open shots, missed most of the ones he took (3-of-11) and repeatedly deferred to an increasingly irritated Wade, who got in James’ grill in an attempt to unleash the aggression that had brought the Heat to the precipice of greatness. It didn’t work. The Heat imploded, losing the final three games and their chance at a title.
“We got the feeling by the end of Game 4 that [James’] confidence was not where it was in Games 1 and 2,” Terry says. “We always were looking at body language, to see if guys were still engaged. LeBron was engaged, but he wasn’t getting to the spots on the floor that he normally did.
“At that time, he was a great one-on-one iso player who relied on that a lot. And when we took that away, he seemed at a bit of a loss.”
The Mavericks’ championship over the Heat prompted James’ most introspective summer. He redoubled his efforts to improve his shooting and turned to meditation to calm his mind and block out critics. He later declared it the turning point of his career.
A rededicated James shot 53.1% from the field (a career high) and 36% from 3, and averaged 30.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in the 2012 playoffs. He established himself as Miami’s — and the NBA’s — No. 1 option, leading the Heat to back-to-back titles.
“You look at all the great stars in this game and there’s a moment where they finally figure out a way to take the next step,” Bowen says. “It happened for LeBron when he immersed himself in the culture Pat Riley developed in Miami. He showed LeBron the right way to maximize his talents, in a structured system that favored gifted players with high IQs.
“The education LeBron got there was invaluable. It was like becoming a scholar at Harvard after a couple of years at Cal State Fullerton.”
The 2014 NBA Finals was a rematch between Miami and San Antonio, and coach Gregg Popovich informed his team it would have to play with a near-zero margin of error. He implemented his now famous “point five” edict: No one was to hold the ball longer than half a second.
By moving the ball that quickly, it enabled the Spurs to stay a fraction ahead of Miami’s defensive rotations, forcing the Heat into what they used to call the “mixer,” a recover-recover-recover mode to physically tax James, already carrying the majority of the offensive load.
In the final three games of the 2014 Finals, the Spurs beat the Heat by an average of 19 points, passing an astounding 114 more times a game than the Heat, per Second Spectrum. Popovich would later anoint that Spurs title as his favorite.
It had taken near-perfect basketball to unseat James from his throne — and to send him back to Cleveland for a shot at redemption.
FOR THE NEXT four seasons, James and the Cavaliers banged heads with the Warriors, who adopted some of the Spurs’ ball-movement edicts, a dash of the triangle principles that won championships for the Chicago Bulls and Lakers, and a healthy diet of 3-point bombs provided by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Golden State’s biggest concern centered on James’ superior court vision.
“He’s an all-world playmaker — one of the best I’ve seen,” says Shaun Livingston, who played with Golden State from 2014 to ’19. “That’s his separator. By that point of his career, he almost always made the right play at the right time with the right efficiency.”
Upon his return to the Cavs, James concentrated on doing more damage at the rim. In his first stint in Cleveland, LeBron attempted 45% of his shots in the paint during the playoffs. That shot up to 56% during his second stay, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. From 2015 to ’18, he led the league with 16 paint points per game.
The Warriors made sure they knew where James was at all times and surrounded him with bodies, whether it was when he was receiving an out-of-bounds pass, an outlet pass, even the ball at half court. Golden State also relied on a variety of defenders with different skills to guard him.
“We gave him small-sample sizes,” Livingston says. “We’d mix up our coverages and our personnel to keep him guessing. The hope was as the series went on it might wear him down a bit.”
Early in the shot clock, James could expect to be hounded by defensive menaces Thompson and Andre Iguodala. Draymond Green would often pick up James on a switch and use his bulk to bump and harass.
“Late in the shot clock, we’d tell everyone to switch in the last three to five seconds,” Livingston explains. “You don’t want to switch any earlier than that, especially on LeBron, because he’ll exploit the matchup.”
The Warriors marveled at James’ ability to maintain his composure. For over a decade, agitators had attempted to rattle him, including Green, whose attempt to upend James failed spectacularly in the 2016 Finals.
“You can’t rattle LeBron,” says David West, another Golden State veteran. “He’s seen it all.”
The Warriors, who were later bolstered by the addition of Kevin Durant, won three of their four Finals matchups with Cleveland, and James was again facing a deficit of comparable talent. He moved on to L.A., where he led the league in assists this season and seems content to allow Anthony Davis to be the primary scorer.
James has led his team outright in points, rebounds and assists 48 times in his playoff career (Larry Bird is a distant second with 13, per Elias Sports Bureau). It’s unlikely he’ll add to that total in 2020, but he certainly won’t mind if he winds up with a ring.
“He’s more patient,” Horry says. “And his ability to play at such a high level at age 35 blows my mind.”
The postseason, after all, is all about adapting and surviving. And after 17 years, LeBron James is still very much alive.