LeBron James is a top 10 player of all-time. Hell, he could be top 5 and is even in debate for the greatest ever. The 2010’s have consisted of him completely dominating the Eastern Conference with no real threat against him. His dominance is at the point where we start to forget how he even lost in his early career.
A few years ago, Bleacher Report released an article detailing how each team that beat LeBron in the playoffs defended the all-time great. One of the teams that come to mind was the Detroit Pistons, a team hallmarked by their physical defensive talent and hustle.
Tayshaun Prince had the duty of guarding LeBron James, and after stopping Kobe in the 2004 Finals, Tayshaun Prince was known as a pretty good defender. Here is what he said:
“It was pretty much LeBron James pick-and-roll 80 percent of the time, put three shooters out there, spread us out, and just let him attack coming off pick-and-rolls,” Prince said. “He turns the corner, there’s no real good chance you get back out in front of him, especially at that point of his career.”
When he wasn’t nearly as efficient as he is now, but, at age 22, even more electric.
“That’s what made it that so special how he was playing because he was still putting up those crazy type of numbers without knocking down a lot of perimeter shots,” Prince said. “A lot of times, it was just a putting his head down, ‘I’m stronger, faster, more athletic, I’m getting to the rim’-type of deal.”
“Just figure out, I’m taking this away,” Prince said. “And if you beat me the other way, that’s it! I’m taking my chances. But I’m not going to sit here and watch film on this guy, this might work this game. You’re just going to keep walking off the court with an L. That’s just how it works.”
The Pistons were convinced of one thing: Whatever pick-and-roll coverage they chose, they needed to keep sight of James’ shooters and limit their open opportunities, even if that frequently meant leaving him to shoot.
“And if he beats you with 50 [points] and hits 10 jumpers, you’re OK with that, you live with it,” Prince said. “Because you’re not stopping a full head of steam guy like that—coming off pick-and-rolls, putting so much pressure on your bigs, he’s shooting 16 free throws and putting your whole team in foul trouble.
“That’s when you are going to definitely lose against him. If he gets in that paint all night long, you have no chance. Just no chance…”
In that 2006 series, there’s no question the Pistons’ ploys worked. James averaged a respectable 44.2 percent shooting along with 26.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists in 45.9 minutes, but his free-throw attempts were down (7.9 per game after a career-best 10.3 in the regular season), and he made just 26.8 percent of his jump shots.
And James’ teammates did not get adequately involved: James attempted nearly as many field goals as his next three highest-scoring teammates (Ilgauskas, Ronald Murray, and Donyell Marshall) combined, while Ilgauskas was second on the Cavaliers with just 10.9 points per game.
“Every series has challenged me, for sure,” James said. “I knew, going against Detroit in the playoffs, I had to get mentally stronger. I wasn’t mentally strong enough. And I knew in order to beat them, that mentally I had to be strong. So every experience has its own perk.”