How the Magic will defend LeBron James

There’s no one way to stop LeBron James. Really, there might not be a way to stop LeBron James. But the Magic are going to try. It’s a lot more complicated than trusting Dwight Howard to keep LeBron out of the paint. Sure, Dwight’s presence helps — but LeBron has studied the film, heard the critics, and read the statistics. He knows he has to find his way to the rim. How do you stop him? Or, better yet, how do you keep him under 40? I believe you start with someone quick. If anything, you sacrifice a little bit of size for someone that can stay in front of him. So someone like Courtney Lee — even though he’s three inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than LeBron — can do a better job of keeping James on the perimeter than Hedo Turkoglu, who’s longer but considerably less quick than Lee. And you want to get LeBron shooting late in the shot clock. When LeBron feels the urgency of the shot clock winding down, he’s the one with the ball in his hands forcing up a jumper. The later he’s shooting, the better. You don’t want LeBron to get out in transition, where you really can’t stop him without fouling. Check out this breakdown from 82games.com, and thanks to Ian for catching my error. LeBron James, shot clock usage, eFG% 0-10 seconds in: 61.3%, 9.6 points 11-15 seconds in: 45.5%, 4.5 points 16-20 seconds in: 44.6%, 4.1 points 21+ seconds in: 42.3%, 2.9 points The Magic will look to constantly force LeBron toward the side that Anderson Varejao (or Ben Wallace) is standing. That will allow a defender to help without leaving a good offensive player alone. And LeBron’s defender should do whatever he can to cut off LeBron’s path directly to the hoop, even if LeBron is already past him. The Magic are going to throw a lot of different looks at him. Turkoglu will begin Game 1 on LeBron, and Mickael Pietrus will probably switch onto LeBron sometime in the first half. Lee will defend him, as well. The matchup could literally switch every couple minutes as the Magic try to mix it up and keep LeBron from getting comfortable. Turk, Pietrus and Lee each have different strengths and weaknesses to defend LeBron. Hedo Turkoglu: While Turk has the best chance to defend LeBron from a physical standpoint, he lacks the lateral quickness to stay with LeBron in an isolation set. That said, Turkoglu uses his help defense well and can challenge LeBron close to the hoop, something Lee can’t really do. Anytime Dwight Howard isn’t in the game, I’d expect Turkoglu to be matched up with LeBron. Courtney Lee: Orlando’s best defender on the outside, Lee spent a lot of time on LeBron the last time these guys met. Lee’s quickness and small stature make him an interesting choice to guard the NBA’s best player. It seems like Lee can entice LeBron into shooting a lot of jumpers, because of the size difference. But there’s also the strength differential that can make Lee vulnerable the closer they get to the hoop. Mickael Pietrus: When the Magic beat the Cavs 116-87 on April 3, James was 3-for-7 when being defended by Pietrus — you can’t ask for much better than that. At the same time, though, Pietrus committed five fouls and was responsible for more than half of James’ 10 free throws. Pietrus has the body and athleticism to contain LeBron, but he might not have the discipline — Pietrus leaves his feet too much and doesn’t work through screens well. The two most common ways the Cavaliers will use LeBron is through the pick-and-roll game and isolation. No surprise, there. The Cavs have a pretty simple offense when LeBron has the ball. Off the pick and roll: First off, you always go underneath the screen against LeBron James. Always. If he wants to shoot the jump shot over the screen, let him. Especially going left, LeBron will shoot off the screen. The Magic will be fine with putting a hand in his face (while not leaving their feet). Going right, I don’t know that switching on the screen is the best strategy, but the picking defender will have to cut off LeBron’s path to keep him from finding a clear lane to the hoop. Isolation: Give him a little room and dare him to shoot the jumper. Granted, if LeBron is hitting the jump shot he becomes virtually unstoppable — that’s the risk the Magic are willing to take, I think. The key is to put a hand in his face on his jumper (no one’s going to block it, anyway) and funnel him to the weak-side defender. It’s similar to defending any other slasher, only 200 percent more difficult. Here’s a quick breakdown of Orlando’s LeBron defense the last time these teams played, on April 3:

The Magic used several defenders on LeBron James, and they were able to have success while rarely bringing the double-team. Mickael Pietrus was the most frequent defender of LeBron James, who made 3 of 7 field goals on Pietrus. James was 2-for-3 from the field when Courtney Lee was playing defense. Hedo Turkoglu started the game on James, and he didn’t allow James to make a field goal (0-3). But Turkoglu sent James to the line a couple of times, as did Pietrus. James only made it to the rim a few times. He took 18 jump-shots, making six, and only scored once on a lay-up. James had no dunks. All in all, it was a masterful performance by Orlando. Dwight Howard’s ability to clog the paint kept James out of the paint, forcing him to hoist up 12 jumpers. He made four of them for 33 percent.

If the Magic can come close to playing the type of defense they played in that game, this will be a very interesting series. All this being said, stopping LeBron may not be the most important element to this series. It might be about stopping the other guys. The wing defenders will have to stay at home on the 3-point shooters at all times. A runner for LeBron is no less scary than an open 3-pointer for Mo Williams or Delonte West. Now, if the Magic do everything right, play perfect defense and frustrate LeBron to no end, he’ll still probably end up with a 25-7-7. That’s OK. To me, the key is keeping LeBron from a 40-12-12 and not allowing one of the other guys to go off.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily

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