The Masked Man
By Brian Martin
The story of the Heat-Knicks game on Thursday night was the look of LeBron James' face mask, not the effect that it had on his play.
With the way James is rolling right now, not even a broken nose can slow him down. On Thursday, he scored 31 points on 13-of-19 shooting, grabbed four rebounds and dished four assists as the Heat cruised past the Knicks, 108-82. It was LeBron's fifth straight game with at least 30 points and his third straight while shooting greater than 65 percent.
James closed out an impressive month of February, during which he averaged 30.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 2.7 steals and shot 57.5 percent. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, James became the first player since Shaquille O'Neal in March of 2003 to average at least 30 points, eight rebounds and shoot 57 percent in a calendar month, with a minimum of five games played.
But as impressive as those numbers are, the story of the night was LeBron's black carbon-fiber mask, which set Twitter on fire during the game and accounted for much of the post-game chatter as well.
"It went with the uniform. We were wearing throwback black. I was able to get a carbon-fiber (mask), which is actually lighter than the one I'd been wearing in practice. It came through at the last minute and I went with it," said James.
"I like the look of it. It looked kind of menacing. As long as he was aggressive, that was the big key," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
"He played like Batman," said Heat forward Chris Bosh.
After Tuesday's practice session, James mentioned that he may be a bit tentative to start the game, but vowed that he would not change the way he played due to the mask.
On Thursday, James showed no signs of hesitation or limitation due to the added accessory. He scored 11 first-quarter points, with his first two buckets coming on drives to the basket against the defense of Carmelo Anthony, absorbing a foul on his first shot of the night.
Of course, this is not the first time LeBron has been forced to wear a protective mask during his NBA career. In his second season as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, he suffered a broken cheekbone courtesy of a Dikembe Mutombo elbow and was forced to wear a mask (the traditional clear version) for over a month as the fracture healed.
Looking back at history, Thursday's dominant performance from LeBron should not have come as a surprise.
James played 16 games with the mask in 2005 (Jan. 3 - Feb. 8) and averaged 26.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 8.7 assists while shooting 50.6 percent from the field. During that time, James recorded his first career triple-double (27 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assist vs Portland on Jan. 19), becoming the youngest player (20 years, 20 days) to achieve the feat. He followed that up with his second triple-double just three days later (28 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists vs Golden State on Jan 22). He also won Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for his play during the month of January, donning the mask for every game.
The numbers below break down LeBron's 2004-05 season into three phases: pre-injury, wearing the mask and post-mask. Once he put the mask on, James played more minutes, scored more points, grabbed more boards and dished out more assists than he did prior to the injury. His overall shooting percentage went up by two percent, although his 3-point and free throw percentages dipped.
A look at his advanced metrics show that his usage rate remained nearly the same with the mask at it was prior to the injury, while his effective field goal percentage and assist percentage both improved.
Another key stat to look at here are the number of shot attempts he put up with and without the mask. While wearing the mask, LeBron put up more shots overall, and got to the free throw line almost exactly same amount as he did before the injury. Had his free throw attempts dropped off dramatically, that would be a sign of a player being less aggressive and more concerned about taking contact. That didn't happen.
While there are similarities between LeBron's play prior to the injury and with the mask in terms of usage, overall efficiency and team success, there is a distinct drop off that came once the mask came off in mid-February. The Cavaliers were 28-19 after LeBron's final game wearing the mask, but stumbled down the stretch, posting a 14-21 record and missing out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East due to a tiebreaker with the New Jersey Nets.
LeBron's usage rate increased dramatically during this stretch of the season, while his offensive and defensive efficiency, shooting, assist and rebound percentages all dropped off. These late season struggles also coincided with a change in ownership, general manager and head coach for the Cavs.
There is no such turmoil to deal with in Miami in 2014 as James and the Heat attempt to win their third consecutive title and make their fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals.
The Heat (41-14) have won six straight games and currently trail the Indiana Pacers (44-13) by 2.0 games for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Can the masked man push the Heat to the top seed heading into the playoffs?
We know the mask won't slow him down.