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James becoming indefensible

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 2, 2011

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MIAMI — It’s a decision Ray Allen regretted the moment LeBron James created enough space for a clean look at the basket from beyond the arc. James’s 25-footer directly in front of the Celtics bench — so close he could feel the breath of Glen Davis on his neck — tied Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with one minute left.

The Celtics never recovered, and James began an outside-shooting ascent that made him perhaps the most dangerous perimeter threat in the NBA playoffs. On Tuesday, he drained four 3-pointers in Miami’s 92-84 win over the Mavericks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, dispelling any notions about his inability to shoot from the 3-point line.

That 3-pointer against the Celtics invigorated a Miami club that had trailed most of the night. The Heat won that game in overtime and went on to seal Game 5 — and the series — behind five James 3-pointers.

It’s safe to say that James has sparked a handful of Miami victories this postseason with his 3-point shooting. Since that critical long ball against the Celtics, he is 16 of 30 from beyond the arc, a stunning mark for a career 32 percent 3-point shooter.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers can be partially credited with devising a defense to contain the younger James: plug up the paint, force him to create by dribbling east-west, and be content to allow the jump shot. And for years, that strategy was effective.

James is not a poor 3-point shooter but a streaky one. Against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season with the Cavaliers, he canned three 3-pointers in Game 1 and just four for the rest of the series. In Games 2-4, he was 2 for 16. Rivers’s defense worked to precision. James fell into the trap of trying to prove he could beat teams with what they gave him, and he couldn’t.

After a season’s worth of work in Miami, James has become a more-than-capable outside shooter. And with very few defenders willing to take a charge against him when he drives into the paint, his offensive game has expanded, if that’s possible.

“It’s not my game, though, I’m not a 3-point shooter,’’ he said after practice yesterday. “I’m an attack guy. If a defense is going to allow me to sit and measure up a 3-pointer, I’m going to take it. I have that much confidence in my shooting ability.

“I’m an attack-first guy. That’s what I’m best at. I don’t care how many threes I make, I understand that my game is in the paint.’’

But when the Mavericks played an aggressive zone defense in Game 1, James was able to click into a rhythm with three third-quarter 3-pointers, including a step-back 26-footer at the buzzer for a 4-point lead.

In the fourth quarter, James pushed the ball down the floor, and Shawn Marion, having to respect his outside shot, stepped toward him near the 3-point stripe, only to have James bull-rush the rim and dunk for a conventional 3-point play.

James realized that teams such as the Celtics the past few seasons, the Spurs in the 2007 Finals, and the Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals all tested his pride by practically giving him the outside shot. When the same thing happened this postseason, the Celtics, Bulls, and now Mavericks have been subjected to his improvement.

“Yeah, dare me to shoot, that’s pretty much gone,’’ he said. “I think people will still live with keeping myself and keeping D-Wade [Dwyane Wade] on the perimeter, but it’s just my confidence.

“I put a lot of hard work into it, and understand that you’ve got to be a two-way player in this league. You have to be able to shoot the ball, you have to be able to drive and do other things to not only get yourself involved, but get your teammates involved.’’

Former NBA All-Defensive Team forward Bruce Bowen, a member of that 2007 Spurs team that swept the Cavaliers in the Finals, said this version of James is dramatically different.

“It’s basketball like dealing with [Michael] Jordan back in the day, man,’’ said Bowen, now an analyst for ESPN. “It’s a team effort. You’ve got to get guys out to him. But you’d rather have him shooting the ball rather than driving, creating, energizing dunks.

“Tyson [Chandler] was supposed to get over there [on the fourth-quarter dunk] and he just ran out of there. You live with him doing something like [shooting 3-pointers] as compared to always getting into the basket and drawing fouls.’’

So opponents are stuck in a quandary. If they defend the perimeter, James will use his hulking body and athleticism to slice into the paint for a dunk or dish. If they leave him alone at the stripe, he has enough confidence to can the 3-pointer — even when contested (just ask Paul Pierce, who was bumping jerseys with James when he swished that tying 3-pointer in Game 4).

“That’s how teams have been playing us, there’s no secret,’’ said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “Every team we’ve played now for the last three or four months, same game plan. Try to keep us out of the paint. Keep us away from the rim. Keep us off the free throw line.

“And we try to be aggressive and get to our game and do those things. At the same time, you have to keep defenses honest.

“A couple of the threes obviously were home run plays, but when those two guys [Wade and James] are in rhythm and they have some good actions going on and they feel involved and in a good flow in the game, they’ve proven that they can make timely threes, especially when they’re wide open.’’

So what do the Mavericks do now?

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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