The Numbers Dance with Iso-Joe

LeBron James
Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon

Whap. The ball rips through the net.

Whap. It goes in again.

Whap. The crowd murmurs nervously.

Whap. Whap. Whap. Whap.

Twelve times he scores off jumpers. That’s more shots than LeBron James made at the rim in all of his 49-point Game 4 performance. He holds, he dribbles, he sizes up his opponent. The ball goes up, again and again, over outstretched arms. Whap. Joe Johnson is ready for all comers, and he keeps knocking them back.

You’ve seen the script before. The Miami HEAT, not having their best shooting night, trail in the second half at home. Keep hanging around. Keep hanging around. Eventually that run is going to come. A burst of defense-to-offense. A corner three. The foul-and-finish at the rim. You’ve seen it happen, you expect it to happen, but Johnson keeps making rewrites on the fly. The HEAT start getting shots to fall but Johnson, one dribble-dribble-dribble score after another, makes the scoreboard appear broken. Miami is always down nine.

The contested two-point jumper is the worst shot in basketball, but variance can play tricks on you. Nothing seems wrong, the defense is right there, but the ball keeps going in. Something must be wrong.

Johnson’s effective field-goal percentage on contested jumpers is only 42 percent, you say? He shoots 44 percent pulling up off the dribble?

“Joe was going against the numbers there for a while,” Shane Battier said.

Numbers demand faith, too. That may seem paradoxical, but in the heat of the moment you sometimes just have to believe. Keep telling yourself that the long-term trumps the short-term. Percentages will play out. But that’s tough when you’re LeBron James and the percentages right in front of you keep threatening to send you back to Brooklyn for a Game 6.

“We put our closer on their best one-on-one player and he hits some tough shots,” Dwyane Wade said.

“You’ve just got to roll with the punches, man,” Chris Bosh said. “Alright, he’s hitting contested twos right in your face, don’t worry about it. Hey, man, it’s OK.”

Typically, percentages go down the longer a player possesses the ball and the more he dribbles. As common sense goes, shots also go in less often the closer the defender is. But according to SportVU tracking data, Johnson shot 9-of-13 after using five or more dribbles. He was 10-of-14 after holding the ball for at least four seconds. When his defender was contesting within four feet of the shot, he made 8-of-14. Johnson is one of the better isolation players in the league, but few even approach a full point-per-possession. Johnson falls well short, shooting 39.7 percent one-on-one.

Didn’t matter. In 11 isolation possessions, per Synergy Sports, Johnson scored 18 of his 34 points. Whap.

“In the fourth quarter, Joe gave me everything that I wanted,” James said. “He was torching me. It got to a point where I just looked at myself and said, ‘If I don’t get stops on Joe then we’re going to lose the game’.

The reaction, off the court, to a player getting hot is often to say that he can’t be allowed to touch the ball anymore. Send the double, you might see on social media. That guy can’t beat us. But that’s what the other team, especially one that moves the ball as well as Brooklyn, wants. Doubling James means an open three somewhere on the court. The same is true of Johnson.

Erik Spoelstra, naturally, isn’t monitoring Twitter during the game.

“Joe Johnson was a handful,” Spoelstra said. “He was a handful and so that’s what we just kept on telling [James]. ‘Stay with it, stay with it’. He’s making tough shots over the top, we didn’t want to send another defender because of their three-point shooting.”

Whap.

There would be no extra defenders. Depending on how you look at it, it was up to James to get the stop or for regression to hit in a hurry.

“It’s just something you got to stick with, that’s kind of just a testament for when things get tough, you stick to your guns. Don’t change it up,” Bosh said.

“Contested two’s over the course of the series doesn’t beat you.”

Makes sense until, of course. Whap.

Still believe in the numbers? Enter Shane Battier with, of all people, a different approach.

See, Synergy says that Johnson scores .765 points per possession going right. Going left, that rate climbs to .903. Tether yourself to the numbers, and they’ll tell you to force Johnson right. But when you begin splicing the situational statistics over the course of a season the sample size gets smaller and smaller. The difference between elite and average efficiency might not be that great. Sometimes even those most devoted to the science of the game have to go with what feels right.

“I thought that, if you go by the numbers straight Joe was technically better going to his left than he was his right, but I felt that if I really made him use his left hand he wasn’t as comfortable finishing. I think that played out. When I guarded him I really tried to make him use his left hand even though he’s a couple of percentage points better going left.

“I don’t know why, that’s just the way it worked.”

When Battier, all too familiar with the feeling of helplessness against a nova-hot scorer, saw what James was dealing with late in the game, he wanted to help. But he also didn’t want to interfere.

“In the 4th quarter I really wanted to say something to LeBron and be like, ‘Dude. Send him left.’ But I don’t think he was at the point where he was receptive . . . so I let it go, until the very end.”

So, during a stoppage with just over two minutes to play and the HEAT trailing by five, Battier intervened.

“I stopped him in a timeout and said, ‘What’s your plan?’”

LeBron’s response? ‘What do the numbers say?’ Battier wasn’t offering statistics. “Left. Send him left,” he said. “Make him use his left hand.”

The next time Johnson faces up against James, James angles his body to push Johnson to his left and away from the paint. Johnson doesn’t bite and tries to force his way right. Bodies collide. Johnson loses speed. All momentum is lost. The price of going right.

James rides Johnson’s hip into the paint, waiting on the right hand.

“I think it make a difference,” Battier said. “I don’t think he got to his right hand there. He’s really good, really comfortable and he’s got so much going to his right hand.”

“When it’s that mano-y-mano, when it gets to that level – when it’s Me vs. You. That’s when you have to say, you know what, forget the gameplan. He’s going where I want him to go.”

Next possession, Johnson goes left.

And that was the end of Iso-Joe. Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston would take the next two high-leverage shots. Johnson would hit a spot-up three after an offensive rebound, Brooklyn’s only points since the timeout preceding the two-minute mark, but the torture was over for James. The numbers played out – James just had to ignore them for a little bit.

“I know the numbers will eventually play out if I stay with my gameplan,” Battier said. “I just didn’t want him to go to his right-hand. In a high-stress game, if you allow guys to get to their comfort zone, the percentages are higher. Left. Left. Left. Left.”

Not quite the Konami Code, but it worked just the same. Battier’s advice wasn’t a guarantee – Johnson had scored going left before – but when the shots that the numbers tell you are bad keep hurting you over and over, a hunch can help swing variance back in your favor. And that swing was just enough to push Miami to its fourth-consecutive Eastern Conference Finals.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com, Synergy Sports and STATS LLC