How one of LeBron James’s smartest layups ever helped save the Lakers

James’ finest basket of the game forced overtime and gave Los Angeles a 3-1 lead over Memphis.

For the first 47 minutes and 53 seconds of Monday’s Game 4 between the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies, LeBron James’ scoring performance was distinctly uncharacteristic of him. He managed to reach there only five times in the fourth game after taking 26 shots in the restricted area through the first three games of the series. He only took four shots in the quarter, all of which he missed, up to the last possession in regulation.

Finally, it seemed as though the Grizzlies’ two weeks of trash-talking were about to pay off. They were on the verge of squaring their first-round series with the Lakers at two games apiece after holding James to 5-of-15 shooting and denying him his best opportunities before returning home for the crucial Game 5.

However, what actually happened wasn’t like that. James raced past Xavier Tillman to bank in a game-tying basket with just 6.7 seconds remaining in regulation after the Lakers set up a sideline play for him with 6.7 seconds left. After winning the game in overtime, the Lakers took a commanding 3-1 series lead.

All of this seems quite typical James, don’t you think? Actually, not quite. The play’s plot depended on two key moments. The Grizzlies made a crucial choice with regard to the first. The second was a brilliant move on James’ part. So let’s examine the Lakers’ final offensive possession of regulation and discover how James completed one of the biggest layups he’s ever made for the purple and gold.

Before the ball was even inbounded, the crucial moment occurred on the Memphis side of the equation. The inbounds passer was Dennis Schroder, although the action really happened on the other side of the court. The move itself was rather straightforward and had only one goal—to get the ball to James at the top of the arc so he could take a decision. However, the Lakers’ positioning shows that they were anticipating a different matchup based on how they lined up.

Austin Reaves is positioned on the ring wing behind the 3-point line. While James is a little deeper than the right elbow. Dillon Brooks, who has irritated James, is defending Reaves. James is being lined up against the larger Xavier Tillman. When the action starts, Reaves flares into the right corner as James gestures to set a screen for him. James runs toward Schroder to accept the pass but never makes contact.

Things start to get interesting from here. When it comes to these late-game circumstances, several teams adhere to a rigorous “switch everything” strategy. The goal is to prevent anyone from having a clear chance at a jump shot, even if it means giving up a mismatch elsewhere else on the floor. The Grizzlies were aware that the Lakers have an end-of-game play created expressly to create a corner 3-pointer since they had undoubtedly thoroughly studied the Lakers’ SLOB (sideline out-of-bounds) strategy before to the series. They infamously exploited it to triumph in their opening contest of the year. Bear in mind Matt Ryan?

On this play, the Lakers were positioned almost similarly, but the score was only down two instead of three. Rui Hachimura moves to set a screen for James as he prepares the soft screen. The plan was probably to push the Grizzlies into a triple-switch, which would have put Desmond Bane in charge of defending James. The Grizzlies were never going to allow that matchup, but a more proactive switch from Reaves on that first movement could have put Brooks onto James, even if he had to pursue James through Hachimura’s screen, especially considering that if James had been pressed for time, he would have settled for a low-percentage 3-pointer. The Grizzlies decided without making any substitutions at all. When Reaves and James switched positions, Brooks stayed with Reaves, so Tillman followed James as he ducked to the top of the key.

This choice has two aspects that call for discussion. The “switch everything” strategy is intended to thwart jumpers in circumstances where jumpers are most likely the only options. Ball handlers simply don’t have enough time to create layups with one or two seconds left in the game. Matchups are given priority when there are 15 seconds left in the game. 6.7 seconds, but… There is some ambiguity in that. If the ball handler reacts quickly enough, he can make a play. And James undoubtedly did.

The more intriguing query is: of Tillman and Brooks, which defender should Memphis have chosen to follow James? In this series, Brooks has primarily defended James. He is one of the NBA’s top perimeter defenders. But in this series, specifically, the data show that Tillman is in the lead. With Brooks as his main defender after three games, James shot 14 of 23 from the field while only making 7 of 17 versus Tillman. In Game 4, James also struggled against Tillman. He repeatedly observed Tillman switching to him after screens, only for Tillman to settle for jumpers or transfer the ball to a teammate.

Priority will determine the final choice in this situation. Smaller and a little speedier is Brooks. The size compromise meant that James would have an easier time shooting over Brooks if he did decide to settle for a jump shot, but it would make it simpler for him to stay in front of James while driving downhill. Tillman has a wingspan of seven feet but is just an inch taller. Brooks only has a 6-6 wingspan. Tillman would have troubled James more by putting a hand in his face if James had simply dribbled out the clock and launched up a potential game-winning three. James would, however, be able to pass him more easily on a road trip.

James succeeded in the end, if only by a hair. Memphis was prepared for this possibility. As the finest rim-protector in the NBA this year, Jaren Jackson Jr. jumped up at the ball once he was aware that James couldn’t pass the ball to Davis in the dunker’s position. Jackson might have turned a fraction of a second earlier if James had been a different ball-handler. But Davis needed to be taken into account. James was only given just enough room to maneuver for the layup. Naturally, a layup cannot be considered “clean” when the Defensive Player of the Year is there. A normal layup is blocked, and the match is over immediately. James and the Lakers’ 20 years of expertise really paid off in this situation.

Look at the spot where the ball lands on the backboard. James successfully arcs the ball off the very top of the backboard using only his fingertips while retaining all of his precision, even knowing that Jackson can block it from practically any other angle. Jackson’s outstretched hand nearly manages to stop the ball before it banks in for the tie.

This is a rare mix of reflexes, agility, and basketball intelligence that very few basketball players have ever possessed. James nailed the timing, which had to be impeccably precise. James saved the day with this technique after failing to get to the basket for the whole game; as he said after the game, it is not only a play he practices expressly for defenders like Jackson, but also one he’s used against similar competitors.

James said, “I work on several layup kits. “Tier 1 is a layup where you lay it off the glass, actually just underneath the rim. The middle of Tier 2 is comparable to the center of a square or a glass. Over the top of the square is Tier 3. To [trainer] Chris Johnson: shot out. Depending on the shot-blocker, we work on those. I have experienced times when I was able to scoop those lofty layups. I can’t recall which Finals it was, but I was able to drive right in Golden State, hold the ball in my right hand, and underhand scoop it over KD.

It’s a positive development for the Laker team, which has had trouble producing half-court offense during the entire series. James can no longer play entire games like he used to due to the effects of aging and a foot issue that will probably require foot surgery in the future. Even if he can get there for a full quarter is now unclear. But the Lakers learned on Monday that James can still call upon his former self when they need it most. The win needed to be stolen. But if this squad is going to have any chance of winning the championship, that understanding was extremely crucial.