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Cleveland Cavaliers playbook: The benefits of LeBron James trying on defense

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Breaking news: It helps!

Miami Heat v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

LeBron James’ defensive effort comes and goes. It’s just part of the LeBron regular season and pre-NBA Finals experience, especially over the past few years.

But there are moments where a focused, engaged LeBron emerges and makes a defensive impact for the Cavs. At this point in his career, at least in the regular season, that mostly comes off ball sans the stretches where he goes into Finals mode and locks down someone (see his defense against Kristaps Porzingis in the fourth quarter for the Cavs’ bonkers win over the Knicks on Oct. 29, for instance). The Cavs’ win over the Heat on Tuesday was one of the nights for James where he looks like someone the Browns should sign to play safety.

In part because the Heat don’t have a player that required his full attention, James was able to roam in the way Tyronn Lue likes him to, particularly when Jae Crowder is on the floor. James finished with five steals on the night, and was one of the main reasons the Cavs finished with 23 points off 15 Miami turnovers.

James’ first steal was partly a result of positioning, but also because the Cavs were able to completely ignore Tyler Johnson. As Dion Waiters drives from the opposite wing, James is turned completely towards him. Jose Calderon’s help defense forces a pass from Waiters and James picks it off, leading to a Kevin Love transition three on the other end:

His second steal is classic LeBron. After a Love miss, Tyler Johnson dribbles up the floor and James starts to read him as Johnson looks to pass to James Johnson near halfcourt. James picks it off, patiently attacks Johnson 1 vs. 1 in transition and scores:

On his third steal, James is guarding Waiters, who drives to his left. James lets him go by, knowing Love is there to impede Waiters’ path to the rim. When Waiters aimlessly rises, James pokes the ball away from behind, leading to Kyle Korver grabbing the loose ball and hitting Dwyane Wade in transition, leading to an easy two points:

James’ last steal was also his last play of the night. He’s guarding James Johnson, who drives into the paint and is easily stripped by James. On the other end, LeBron feels he is fouled and is ejected. Even if he didn’t convert here, the Cavs want James in scenarios like this:

Was LeBron’s defense in his game perfect? No, and he got credit for one steal he maybe shouldn’t have because he happened to tip a loose ball. His impact likely won’t be this high on a random game when he barely focuses on that end. But on the nights he is engaged on defense, it can serve of a reminder of the impact he can have on defense, and the advantage that gives the Cavs.