MIAMI -- It is the unselfish superstar's dilemma, whenever the clock is ticking and the game is up for grabs: When is it proper to pass? When is it proper to shoot? Which choice to make for the win?
It's just what LeBron James needs, another big and controversial "decision" to make for the basketball public to use either for or against him.
He's one game into the NBA Finals and already hearing an old and familiar complaint, that he too often gives up the ball at a time when he needs to keep it. In the final minute of a tight opener against the Spurs, LeBron spotted Chris Bosh wide open beyond the three-point line. A basket by Bosh would've given the Heat control of the game. Almost naturally, if not reflexively, LeBron passed up a shot and gave Bosh the green light to be the hero. Bosh missed, Tony Parker scored on a circus shot for the Spurs and it was ballgame, San Antonio.
This is nothing new when it comes to LeBron. We've seen this movie many times before, although in the past, LeBron passing up shots was viewed by haters as being cowardly. After he won two straight MVPs and last season's championship, it was suddenly viewed as being unselfish sometimes to a fault. Funny how perception works, isn't it?
Public opinion aside, LeBron and the Heat are trying to win a second straight title. And sometimes, in a split-second, decisions must be made by LeBron that will help decide who wins and loses. Pass or shoot? Go through two or three defenders, or give the ball to a teammate with an open look? What's the better way to win? And is there really a proper way to win, in these situations?
"I trust my teammates," LeBron said. "I'll always trust them in that situation because they've come through before."
Well, the Spurs, based on their Game 1 strategy at least, have made it clear. They'd rather get beat by Bosh taking 20 footers and even Ray Allen taking threes. Anyone other than LeBron. It's a wise strategy used by the smartest teams: Never let the other team's best guy beat you. Force one of his teammates to be the hero. And so, with that, LeBron will have a big choice to make in a championship series where most if not all of the games could be close.
"I had some opportunities where I could've been more aggressive or looked for my shot," he said, after taking only four shots in the fourth quarter. "But I was able to find my guys for some shots. We had some wide open shots where I had two guys on me. Two plays in the third quarter I was able to find (Mario Chalmers) for two great shots he just missed. I found (Bosh) for four great looks that he just missed, ones that he's capable of making, shots he's been making all year.
"My guys are open. I've gotten this far with them, I'm not going to abandon what I've been doing all year to help us get to this point. I know those guys will be ready to shoot again once they're left open."
Yes. But will they make those shots? That's been an ongoing issue throughout the playoffs, and with this being the championship round, should LeBron stick with the plan if the plan isn't working?
For example, Tim Duncan is guarding Bosh at times, Udonis Haslem at times. Whenever LeBron drove the lane, Duncan switched on LeBron, as he did on the shot Bosh missed. Duncan came to the rescue of Kawhi Leonard and provided another layer of defense between LeBron and the rim. Duncan left it up to teammates to rotate to cover Haslem and Bosh. Those two players became secondary concerns to Duncan. And this approach won't change, even if Bosh hits a few shots.
Pass … or shoot? You don't need to ask Kobe Bryant which way to go. Same, for the most part, for Michael Jordan. Although Jordan did clinch a championship by passing the ball to Steve Kerr once, he got the Bulls through their six titles mainly by keeping the ball. But Kobe and Jordan aren't cut in the same mold as LeBron. Both aren't as trusting of their teammates. They'd rather take the shot, more often than not, and deal with the consequences, good and bad. They'd rather not second-guess themselves by passing to a teammate unless that player has a layup.
LeBron looks for the open man as much as he looks for himself. He's wired that way, and there's no changing. That's what makes him special, and that's also what makes him gullible. What's unfair is when LeBron somehow becomes the bad guy when his teammates can't make the shot. He didn't botch the play. He made the right decision. They screwed up by missing the shot.
If LeBron forces a shot, which he did once in the final two minutes of Game 1, then he's guilty of botching the play. He can be aggressive when the defense isn't geared to stop him, as was the case in Game 1 against the Pacers when Paul George didn't adjust and Roy Hibbert was on the bench, allowing LeBron to drop the winning layup at the buzzer. The decision whether to shoot or pass, then, is often dictated by the situation, and no situation is the same.
"He'll do whatever it takes," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "He's as a cerebral player as there is in this league. He'll read the game as necessary."
Will and should LeBron continue to pass to a secondary player, such as Haslem? Well, when Haslem was punishing the Pacers on 20-footers, it wasn't a problem then. It's all about making the right pass, at the right time, to the right teammate. When that happens, those decisions are supposed to work. Sometimes they don't because the player blows the shot, that's all.
"Chris has been hitting that shot," said Parker. "Lucky enough, he missed it. We don't want to leave Chris Bosh open like that because he's been hitting a lot of threes for them."
Yes, this is true. Bosh is making 40 percent of his threes in the playoffs. He just chose the wrong time to miss. That said, the Spurs chose their poison and chose wisely. LeBron would be helped so much more if Bosh mixed it up and took his game to the rim at times. Too often he strays and settles for jumpers, especially if he hits his first few.
"I wouldn't bet against our open shooters," Spoelstra said. "We just need to make sure we're getting the shots we want. We just need to be better down the stretch."
At some point in this series, LeBron will be presented again with a pass-or-shoot scenario. You can bank on him making the right decision. But as we saw in Game 1, the right choice doesn't always work.