There is one cardinal rule when playing a basketball game with LeBron James. Never, under any circumstance, take your eyes off of him when he has the ball in his hands.
Glance away for a second, and you could wind up on a highlight reel of bloopers with a bloody nose or busted lip — the result of a lightning-quick pass.
James is a fantastic scorer, and his shooting numbers have never been higher than now, but at his heart, James is a passer. Near the top of the list of his many gifts, and probably the one for which he takes the most pride, is an ability to routinely turn a no-look pass from the top of the key into an easy layup for his teammates.
“It’s called being 6-8, and then it’s called being an unbelievable passer — just a high IQ of the game,” teammate Dwyane Wade said.
In the first period of Sunday’s win over Cleveland, James whipped four no-look passes into the paint to teammates. Two went for layups and two resulted in free-throw attempts. James finished the game with eight assists to go along with 28 points and three rebounds.
James is tied for 10th in the NBA in assists per game (7.1), but No. 1 among players who are not guards.
There isn’t a statistic for no-look passes that somehow find wide-open teammates under the basket, but according to Hoopdata.com, James is averaging 2.6 assists per game that result in shots at the rim. Overall, James is 19th in the league in the category. The league average is 0.8 per game.
Of course, even these statistics are somewhat deceiving. Many times, a driving guard will draw defenders at the rim and then dish off to a teammate. Wade is an expert at such situational no-look passes, said Heat center Chris Andersen.
“Wade will most definitely find you on a real late, late pass,” Andersen said.
But James’ no-look passes are different. He can read a defense and zip a pass from the top of the key — like a missile past the defense — to a wide-open player at the rim.
“LeBron will snap that ball to you on a zip line,” Andersen said. “So, you’ve got to be ready for it, or you’re going to get smacked in the face with it.”
Routinely attempting to thread no-look passes from long distances in half-court sets is something coaches do not recommend. It’s a high-risk play, but James’ rare mix of height and court vision allows for the otherwise impossible.
When coaches refer to James as a direct link to Magic Johnson, this is why. Finding players under the basket and passing it over defenders without looking in that direction is basketball sorcery. A born wizard, James has been doing this since high school and it’s the first thing scouts recognized.
“He has a great feel, and that’s a skill and gift you can’t teach,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “First of all, he has the vision … and he has the size that he can see over the tops of defenses and he has the strength and the creativity to deliver the pass in different ways but with velocity.
“That’s the probably the very first thing I noticed when I saw the very first clip of LeBron James in high school was his passing and vision.”
Heat forward Chris Bosh learned that the hard way.
No, Bosh has never been hit in the face by a no-look pass from James, but he did have a few of James’ passes ricochet off his hands during practices. From time to time, it still happens.
“He’ll hit you in the face with the ball,” Bosh said. “Still have to get used to it. Sometimes there’s a little bit of juice on it some days, but it takes some getting used to. It’s just a part of chemistry building.
“He has such great vision, sometimes when you think he doesn’t see you, he does.”
James is ranked 14th in the NBA in assists per game (6.9), but No.1 among players at non-guard positions. Of the top 50 passers in the NBA, only four are forwards. Nicolas Batum (4.9 assists per game) of the Trail Blazers is ranked 39th, just ahead of Wade. Evan Turner of the 76ers is 46th at 4.5 assists per game. Kevin Durant of the Thunder is 47th at 4.4 assists per game.
In the Heat’s four games last week, which included three double-digit victories on the road, James averaged 9.3 assists per game. For his efforts, which also included 23.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.25 steals per game, not to mention a triple-double and three double-doubles, James was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for an NBA record 42nd time.
The end result of James’ skill as a passer — when combined with his scoring ability and newly refined shooting touch — is a feeling of helplessness for defenses.
With the ball in his hands, James has the omnipotence to manipulate a basketball game. How else to explain leaving Wade, an All-Star, open under the basket?
How else do explain leaving Wade, one of the best players in the NBA, wide open under the basket for a layup?
“I’m reading the defense and sometimes my man might lose track, because all eyes are going to [James] at that time,” Wade said. “So the biggest thing is getting down there and finishing, because if he makes you the pass and you don’t finish it, he’s going to be very angry.”