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FiveThirtyEight

On Sunday night, LeBron James put together a masterful performance, helping the Miami Heat defeat the San Antonio Spurs 98-96 and leveling the NBA Finals at 1-1.

James finished with 35 points, 10 rebounds and three assists; he ended the night with a 72.3 true shooting percentage. After all the hoopla surrounding Game 1’s air-conditioning malfunction and James’s leg cramps, it was reasonable to expect James to play aggressive, attacking basketball in Game 2. And he did — one way in the first half and another in the second.

The Heat got off to a slow start in the first quarter, but James pressed, looking to jump-start Miami’s offense from around the rim. By the end of the first two quarters, he’d scored 12 points on 11 shots from the field (with an additional point coming from the free-throw line). James took just two shots from outside the paint.

James attempted another 11 shots in the second half, scoring 22 points (with the benefit of three points from the free-throw line). All 11 of those shots came from outside the paint.

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James’s second-half shots didn’t just come from outside the paint — they came from way outside the paint. His average shot distance in the second half was nearly six times longer than his average shot distance in the first half. (These numbers don’t include shot attempts where he was fouled; James took four free throws in the second half after being fouled on two shots at the rim).

As remarkable as that split is, his efficiency on those perimeter shots is even more impressive.

If, before Game 2, the Spurs were told that they could keep James from making a single shot at the basket in the second half, I’m sure they would have taken that deal in a heartbeat. Although James’s jump shooting has improved over the past few seasons to the point of being a dangerous weapon, the Spurs would generally prefer to have him shooting long jump shots, particularly long 2-pointers, when the alternative is him flying full speed at the basket. During the regular season, James made 38.5 percent of his long 2-pointers (everything outside the paint and inside the 3-point line). Those shots accounted for 24.1 percent of his total shot attempts. In Game 2, almost half of his shots were from that area (10 of 22), and he made 50 percent of them.

James opened the door for this performance with his aggressiveness in the first half. All of his drives and interior bullying nudged the focus of the Spurs’ defense inward. In addition, the slower Boris Diaw defended James for much of the second half because Kawhi Leonard was in foul trouble.

Before the finals, I pointed out (as did others) that a big piece of the Spurs’ success against the Heat in last year’s finals was the way they goaded Miami into taking long 2-pointers. The Spurs got exactly that in the second half of Game 2, and — despite James’s performance — the Spurs would probably still prefer James to take those shots. But like great players before him, James, when he is on, can make sound defensive strategy irrelevant.

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