IT’S A FIVE-POINT game in a 1-1 playoff series, and the game clock ticks inside two minutes in the first half when LeBron James goes in his bag.
The sequence begins when James snags a defensive rebound and advances the ball up the left side of the court. Once past the massive NBA logo engulfing the tipoff circle at AdventHealth Arena, the Los Angeles Lakers star slows his dribble ever so slightly. This delay allows teammate Anthony Davis to step between James and Gary Trent Jr., who was assigned the thankless task of guarding James in the first round, to set a brush screen.
Trent pushes Davis in the chest to stop himself from getting stuck on the screen, and as James lingers at the 3-point line and yo-yo dribbles the ball back and forth between his legs, Davis resets the pick. Trent is caught this time. James gets his shoulder down and springs toward the lane.
Here’s where the fun starts.
Portland’s Wenyen Gabriel, who had been guarding Davis, switches onto James and awaits him at the foul line.
A 6-foot-9, 200-pound power forward, Gabriel is about to be made to look like a traffic cone by the 6-9, 250-pound James, who is dabbling at point guard in the twilight of his prime.
James angles his drive from the middle of the court toward the left elbow. Once Gabriel commits, sliding his feet to meet where he assumes James is heading, the trap is set. James spins left to right and shields Gabriel’s now off-balance defensive flail at the ball with his left shoulder.
He gently lays the ball in off the glass, and Gabriel can do nothing but catch it out of the net and throw an inbounds pass to CJ McCollum.
Gabriel had, of course, braced for contact. Which is understandable, given that he was thwarting a thrust from one of the most physically imposing players the league has ever seen. But James’ spin move away from Gabriel’s body had left the Portland big man disoriented and prone, the audience to a basket from James that had cut the Trail Blazers’ lead from five to three.
It was just another perfect execution of a signature move James has developed in recent years. The spin move is the middle ground between savage and savvy, requiring physical prowess to generate centrifugal force but relying on timing and grace to properly redirect momentum.
“It’s like a locomotive that jumps the tracks,” Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says. “There’s nothing you can do.”
THERE WAS A time when Gabriel and others like him would have ended up like a splattered bug on James’ windshield, a time when James’ first instinct was to finish drives to the hoop with an aerial assault that turned defenders into mere hurdles.
But his game evolved. During his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James was most dangerous when throwing down powerful dunks. In Miami, he developed a post game and his efficiency skyrocketed. When he went back to Cleveland, he had better command of his jump shot.
“One of the things that I always used to say when people ask me about his game is, he was barely scratching the surface back then. And he was a great player then,” says Golden State Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown, who in 2007 coached James to his first NBA Finals appearance with the Cavs.
“So the spin move that he has now, it’s a dangerous weapon. But I just look at that as part of his repertoire of many things he can do and many ways he could hurt you if you don’t respect his game all over the floor.”
It is James’ constant threat of beelining to the rim that has defenses retreating and gives the spin its sizzle. And make no mistake, the move torches opponents.
LeBron James’ athleticism is on full display with a spin move against CJ McCollum for two.
He brought the spin with him to the NBA bubble. In six seeding-round games, James sprung the spin on opposing defenses 12 times. He scored or was fouled seven times (58.3%). When his spin led him to a shot, he went 3-for-4 (75%). The other spin possessions ended up with one pass and three turnovers.
In the first round of the playoffs against Portland, he went to the spin more often — breaking it out 11 times in five games, but with less success. He scored or was fouled four times