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The Art of the Nutmeg: While We’re Waiting

LeBron James Andew Wiggins Cavs Timberwolves
AP Photo/Jim Mone

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.

  • mgbode

    EA Sports thinks that pass looks to unrealistic for video game usage

  • Harv

    totally agree, Scott, it was one of the greatest passes ever. It also looked like LeBron added topspin for higher velo/lower bounce once it struck the floor. His passing motions have been as creative as the thoughts behind them.

    Having said all that, this is LeBron’s mid-season self-amusement. A lot of his recent turnovers have been of this ilk – mid-air changes of decision, ever riskier touchdown attempts that get picked off. It’s fine. The stuff that works will be digitally montaged forever and the ones that get picked off forgotten moments later. But it is all-star game fluff he’ll tone down when things get serious in April. In mid-February, it’s almost like he’s doing it as a sports ambassador, making sure Minnesota fans love the NBA in general and him in particular.

  • NankirPhelge

    LeBron also whipped a gorgeous sorta-no-look behind-the-back pass to Derrick Williams in traffic right under the basket. Williams was fouled going up for the jam, so LBJ didn’t get credit for the assist, but it was also beautiful!

  • jpftribe

    Nice piece Scott. You could’ve just posted the youtube and your closing sentence would have still nailed it.

  • JM85

    LeBron is one of the best passers ever.

  • chrisdottcomm

    Saw it live last night and after I picked myself off the ground from writhing in pure giddy joy of the play I immediately messaged my friend… “In no way shape for form did Bron intend to nutmeg that pass, but it happened and it was glorious”.

  • chrisdottcomm

    Just for clarification, it’s my opinion that Bron makes that pass with the thought that the off look is going to send Wiggins out to try and cover Korver, letting him underneath to cutting Williams.

  • RGB

    Sooo, the Four Letter is re-airing their interview they just had 5 minutes ago with the Warriors GM because it was SOOOO good. (Their exact words)
    Why don’t they ever interview David Griffin?

  • Garry_Owen
  • mgbode

    what has he ever done? isn’t LeBron the GM?

  • RGB

    LBJ only interviews with SI…

  • Garry_Owen

    I quite literally almost spit my late afternoon coffee all over my laptop. IT would have been furious. But it would have been worth it.

  • mgbode

    Why hasn’t anyone started a FAIL pass GIF thread yet?

    https://consequenceofsound.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/wale-nba-2.gif?w=650

  • mgbode
  • mgbode
  • mgbode
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  • It is just so utterly and premeditated-ly savage. This was a set up, with the intent of making the defender look foolish. Simply amazing.

  • Saggy

    I know I’m late to the party but you guys must have missed the elastico nutmeg by Ronaldo. Let me fix that.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMMpiTLsQ-4

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