In years past, LeBron James hasn’t logged too many defensive plays in the playoffs, at least not in isolation situations. No one wanted to go at him. It makes sense; he’s one of the five best all-position defenders of the past 15 years. He may be the most versatile defender in NBA history.
Victor Oladipo right now is a race car in the red, and he is flying right past James on the highway.
In the Pacers’ near-comeback in Game 2, Oladipo knew he had to take over, and instead of navigating a switch, went right at James.
The NBA’s matchup data (which still has some bugs) suggests Oladipo is getting four points per game in this series, shooting 50 percent, when matched up directly against James. That may not sound like a lot, but four points per game over the course of a five- or six-game series makes a huge difference, and that doesn’t include plays such as this one where James is the help defender:
James seems to be working on a past framework with Oladipo, expecting him to crash into the lane. He’s twice gone for the charge, only for Oladipo to slip right around him.
No one in the NBA will admit they’re “afraid” of James, but you usually try to find a different matchup by running pick and roll or off-ball action. It’s notable that James has actually defended Oladipo so few times. You would think with LeBron being the best available perimeter defender, he’d take on that challenge more. But the Cavs continue to save James’ energy by having him guard either Darren Collison as a spot-up shooter or Thad Young in his traditional cross-match.
James isn’t oh-fer vs. Oladipo. Some possessions he helps over to deny the ball, or like here, he successfully contests at the rim to force a transition miss because of the fear of the infamous chase-down block.
But at least on one possession, Oladipo purposefully tracked down James to knock down a 3 in his eye. That takes marbles.
Oladipo has a 64.9% effective field goal percentage in these playoffs. It’s just two games, but if that keeps up, it’d be the second-highest ever for a player age 25 or younger who’s playing 30 minutes per night and taking as many shots as he is.
Oladipo has been the best player in this series, even with James going for 46 in Game 2, and if the Pacers are going to have a chance to knock the King off the throne in the East, the Indiana alum is going to have to continue to show this level of fearlessness and aggression. On the flip side, if anything is going to get James out of his defensive malaise, it has to be Oladipo not only performing like this, but challenging him directly.