The nutmeg is an elusive, rarely executed move most common in sports where the projectile is oftentimes small or affixed to the ground. Hockey pucks travel between the legs of defenders on a nightly basis. Soccer balls less so, but when you combine fast-moving footwork with fatigue and anticipation, hey—it happens. In basketball, however, nutmeg passes are mostly reserved for And 1-style highlights where defense is optional and dribbling—or “handles”—gets the oohs and ahhs going much more than any mid-range jump shot. Even then, the nutmegs are close, defenders pressing up on a ball handler, with said ball handler escaping through the defender’s legs to drive to the hoop. On Tuesday night, however, as the short-handed Cavaliers were taking on the internet darling Minnesota Timberwolves, LeBron James snapped off a nutmeg pass for the ages.
James’ game traverses between extraordinary and impossible on a nightly basis, so many will merely chalk this up as another pass delivered by one of the game’s best. It wasn’t long ago where we discussed the four-time MVP’s ability to deliver passes to teammates based on how they prefer the seams as they prepare to shoot. What he did during the second quarter on Tuesday night, however, may have been the most impressive assist of the 2016-17 season, if not his entire career.
Fewer situations throughout the course of an NBA game are more oh shit than James having a full head of steam—”running downhill,” as they say—in the open floor. As Minnesota head coach Tom Thibodeau stated before Tuesday’s game, you can’t stop James; you just try to make him work to earn whatever it is he wants to do to you. In this case, James skewered two victims as Wolves rookie point guard Kris Dunn picked James up at midcourt, but he was quickly rendered a line item as James broke off a pass that should make every fan do nothing with their Wednesday but watch it over and over again.
If we want to get technical, it starts with Kyle Korver running along James’ left side, being completely uncovered on the left side. But if we want to get even more technical, that should have been the pass James made. Dunn was on James’ right shoulder, effectively forcing him to the left. A quick pass to the wing would have resulted in an open three-point attempt, an area that has been dominated by Korver over the last several games. Instead, while looking Korver’s way, James decided to pass to a cutting Derrick Williams, a player with whom he has had little time to build any sort of chemistry, but one who has immediately fit a role with a team in dire need of healthy bodies.
If it were just a regular no-look pass, it’d be impressive, but not so much when you look at it through the prism of other passes James has delivered. But this one wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill no-look pass in transition. It went through the legs of a defender who was standing roughly 15 feet away. Wiggins’ wiry frame wasn’t a point blank target—James had to fire the ball through the wickets, but in a way where it could be corralled by his cutting teammate.
In Andrew Wiggins’ defense, he made the right decision. Left on an island, the former No. 1 pick had to choose between guarding Korver at the wing or Williams in the corner. Had he jumped out to Korver, the result would have merely been an open lay-up for Williams. Though in transition, the Cavaliers have run versions of this play before. Against the Memphis Grizzlies this past December, it was J.R. Smith on the wing and Kevin Love cutting to the rim after the defender leaned toward Smith. On Tuesday, however, there was no move—Wiggins froze. It was just a split second, but it was long enough for James to fire a pass between the legs of the 6-foot-8-inch wing. Making matters worse: The delayed reaction forced Wiggins to go from staring through his own legs to quickly spinning in an attempt to defend Williams, and when a defender is late, a whistle usually follows.
So if you’re keeping score, LeBron James flawlessly executed a two-handed no-look pass, through the legs of a defender, to a teammate who he just met, while everyone was moving at full speed. He finished the night with 14 assists (to go with 25 points and eight rebounds) in the win, but as we’ve tried to tell you all season long, not all assists are created equal. LeBron James continues to defy logic while raising the bar higher and higher. A highlight dunk typically equates to a poster, but the artistry of what James did on Tuesday night was, in the very least, fit for a canvas.