It should be no surprise that LeBron James draws a lot of attention pretty much wherever he is on the court, but there’s few places he draws more attention than when he’s in the post looking to bully his defender into the restricted area for an easy layup. The Cavaliers know this and will use his immense gravity to their advantage, cutting backdoor or setting up shooters for him to find. In Game 3 against Indiana, Cleveland went to James in the post as a playmaker, not a scorer, multiple times and while the results were mixed, the action itself created openings in what’s been a stingy Pacers defense.
An evolution of their Corner set, in which James orchestrates at the top of the key as two shooters screen for one another in the corner before one cuts to the hoop, the Cavaliers placed him at the elbow and ran similar action, now with the added threat of James simply backing his way into the paint with one hard dribble and getting an easy jumper or finish at the rim. As is James’ nature, he was mostly a passer out of these situation, finding backdoor cutters or shooters out of the Elbow actions. Cleveland will also run Kevin Love as the elbow passer in these same actions but didn’t do a ton of that against Indiana on Friday.
Cleveland’s Elbow set goes through a couple progressions: James first looks toward the split cuts in the near corner in an attempt to find an open shooter or cutter before executing his own “snug” pick-and-roll if nothing is available elsewhere.
Whether they inbound it to James directly or walk the ball up and dump it into him at the elbow, the setup is mostly the same: James on the left elbow with the ball, two shooters in the left corner screening for one another, and the other two on the right side of the floor whose positions depend on their role in the offense.
After a bit of trouble getting the ball in to Jordan Clarkson initially, the ball eventually finds him along the left wing. He throws the ball to James at the elbow to initiate the action: Clarkson and J.R. Smith execute split cuts in the left corner while Rodney Hood spaces the floor to the right corner and Nance creeps around doing Larry Nance stuff in the paint—looking for quick cuts, offensive rebounds, and generally just popping up in unexpected places. Smith slips the screen for Clarkson and cuts to the basket, getting a slight advantage on Bojan Bogdanovic before laying it in.
When the defense is expecting the split cut action, the corner man can quickly cut backdoor without setting or slipping a screen:
Love doesn’t even bother faking the screen for George Hill—as soon as the ball got the James at the elbow, he put a swim move on Thaddeus Young and got to the rim.
If nothing’s open initially, James will often run what’s called a “snug” pick-and-roll with Nance. “Snug” refers to any pick-and-roll in which the ball starts inside the three-point line, as it does here with James at the elbow:
Snug pick-and-rolls can be particularly effective because the ball handler’s defender absolutely must go over the screen—there’s no room to go under without the ball getting to the rim with ease. Nance slips the screen and James takes the isolation jumper, but particularly when Domantas Sabonis is in the game for Indiana, the Cavaliers can use this set to force a switch onto James. With a more solid screen, Nance can completely take James’ defender out of the play and ensure that Cleveland gets a positive matchup with Sabonis guarding James.
This can sometimes bog down if James doesn’t take any of the options but continues to hold the ball; there’s not a lot of secondary action coming out of these situations for the Cavaliers. If the initial split cuts don’t produce anything and there’s no advantage gained from the snug pick-and-roll, the offense will mostly just stop working altogether, forcing James to bail them out with a post-up. Still, the elbow action is a good way to use James’ gravity and immense passing ability in tight spaces to break down the Pacers’ defense and generate good looks at the rim and from beyond the three-point line. Look for the Cavaliers to go to James at the elbows more often as the series progresses.