One of my favorite niche movie characters is “the Keymaker” from the Matrix trilogy. If you’re not familiar with him, you can read up on the character, but a cliff’s notes explanation is that he represents is the idea of creating a path to a solution that was not there before. Or, said another way, creating a workaround to a problem, a shortcurt, in order to quickly get a solution that evades others who do not have the same tool.
What does this have to do with the Lakers? Well, in the world of the evolving NBA where teams are becoming more and more perimeter oriented and the movement towards dynamic wing players as the scarcest and most important commodity in the league, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the Keymaker. They are the pathway to a solution for problems that plague most other teams.
If the old NBA was dominated by those who could control the paint and the new NBA is one that is dominated by those who can control the perimeter, the Bron/AD duo are the bridge that connects those two worlds. They are the most malleable of stars who, through their size, athleticism, and unique skill-sets (especially for players that big), can walk amongst the brutes and the ballerinas and turn the game against either group by leveraging all the tools of their individual games.
Throughout the NBA playoffs, both Bron and AD have shown us to be the antidote to whatever approach teams try to use to stop them.
Let’s start with AD.
Here is is simply crushing the Heat in Wednesday’s game 1 with his size and dexterity via an offensive rebound, then taking a shot in the paint, grabbing his own miss, and then finishing his second shot all while exalting in his own physical dominance:
Miami had gone small here, trying to leverage their quickness and toughness (even at their smaller size) against the bigger Lakers. But, those same Lakers aren’t just big, they’re quick and agile too. And they’re strong and tough. So, smaller guys won’t work. This was the Rockets strategy too and that got them sent home in 5 games.
Now, here’s AD again, but against the Blazers in the first round. Portland did not have the wings to play smaller, so they super sized their lineup, playing two Centers to start games, and trying to match up against AD with behemoths who would lean on him and try to physically pound him into submission. Only, that didn’t work either. AD simply took those guys out to the perimeter and cooked them with his skill game. Look at this move he put on Hassan Whiteside:
The player from the first clip against the Heat isn’t supposed to be the same player in the second clip vs. the Blazers. But, that’s AD. The solution to either problem.
Bron, of course, is an original prototype when it comes to this sort of thing. There’s no good answer for him, basically, ever. Your best bet at this stage of his career (17 years in!) is finding someone who is roughly the same size, but also athletic and long and quick and young enough not tire out. Those players are hard to find and even if you have one, Bron has enough diversity in his game as both a scorer and a passer to generate advantage regardless of the individual defender he’s facing.
Anyways, here’s a play from the Blazers series where Bron shows both quickness and power in his unique way:
He starts in the backcourt by using his frame to seal off Nurkic and block his path to ensure he won’t get back into the play defensively. Then he turns on the jets to race towards the paint, crosses over, then finishes through contact for the layup + the foul.
Of course, transition is an area where LeBron thrives and is nearly unstoppable. But, where he can still offer solutions to nearly every problem is in the halfcourt (which is a key reason he’s still such a force in the playoffs).
Here he is against the Rockets. Houston found that their best option against Bron was Eric Gordon, who is quick and sturdy on the perimeter, so he can be difficult to get leverage on when driving from the wing. So, here Bron simply moves off the ball, comes off a back screen weakside, and then flashes to the the ball under the hoop while sealing off Gordon for an easy post layup.
Gordon could somewhat hang on the perimeter, but once he got taken inside, it was over for him. So, over and over again, Bron simply went to the post against him, both on plays like this one and on more traditional post catches and dribble backdowns to put the Rockets’ defense in precarious situations.
But, when it’s time for LeBron to play more as a wing again, he’s still an expert at that, too. Here he is running a high P&R vs. the Nuggets who employ a drop coverage with Jokic to defend against the drive.
Bron, though, gets downhill, shakes Jokic with an inside-out dribble on the move, and glides right by him for an easy layup. Jokic — and this is true for most bigs — don’t have the lateral quickness to stay with Bron when he’s attacking them at full speed. These same types of drives are commonplace against switches vs. bigger defenders too.
There’s countless other examples of this that I could show here, but in reality there’s not much of a point. From LeBron and AD’s ability to stretch out to beyond the arc to their ability accept help and double teams — but still score or make the right passes to open teammates — and do it all against small or big player alike, there’s very few answers to them as individual talents.
This versatility also extends to the other side of the ball. Think of some of the defensive matchups both players have taken on this postseason. Against the Rockets, Davis defended Russell Westbrook while LeBron protected the rim both in transition and the halfcourt. Against the Nuggets, Davis would defend Jokic on one possession and then switch onto Jamal Murray on the next, earning stops against both players. LeBron also took on the challenge to defend Murray in a crucial game 4 for most of the 4th quarter, earning several stops that won the game, and then in game 5 executed key switches onto Jokic as well.
Both players defend every position, rotate from the perimeter to the paint and back again, block shots, force steals, and contain ball handlers attacking off the dribble. Then, after earning the stop, they both rebound at high rates and excel at turning those stops into transition chances where both can lead a break in the middle of the floor or fill any lane on the court, all while moving like guards even though both are the size of big men.
As the Keymaker said to Trinity “Another way. Always another way.”, Bron and AD always seem to find one more way to beat you. They always seem to have a counter to your approach, always seem to be able to find the workaround that allows them to pass through to the other side with a simple turn of the key.
That’s been true these entire playoffs, and really came to fruition in game 1 vs. the Heat. And, hopefully, it will be true 3 more times these Finals.