Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
There’s no way to replicate the experience of playing against LeBron James in the playoffs. But as the Houston Rockets prepare during their second-round series against James’ Los Angeles Lakers, they’ve found the next-best thing: an undrafted 5’9″ guard.
Meet Rockets rookie guard Chris Clemons, who has been given the prestigious assignment of play-acting as James for the scout team, a collection of end-of-bench players who help the Rockets’ starters walk through the plays the Lakers will run during the series.
Clemons pretending to be the 6’9″ four-time league MVP, who most people consider the best basketball player in the world? It’s not as wild as it sounds.
“LeBron actually plays [point guard] most of the time,” Clemons tells B/R. “He’s pretty much everything on the court. He plays a whole bunch of different positions. That’s what makes him special. So I would definitely say being a point guard helps, skill set-wise, in trying to replicate his game.”
Most coaches employ some variation of this tactic during their playoff practices, and it’s surprisingly effective.
“Sometimes a player plays a lot better when he thinks he’s somebody else,” says Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “It’s amazing, when we watch it we say, ‘Why don’t you play like that all the time?’ We tell them, act like you’re Kevin Durant or whoever. And they go crazy. They start scoring the ball.
“These guys are extremely talented, even if they’re on the scout team or whatever you want to call it.”
For current matchups, coaches are often reluctant to divulge how they’re game-planning for opposing stars. Lakers coach Frank Vogel won’t say who’s standing in for James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but he did reveal that fourth-year guard Quinn Cook did a “pretty darn good” Damian Lillard impersonation during the Lakers’ first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers.
And Miami Heat rookie forward KZ Okpala, who has played 26 NBA minutes over five career games, was tasked with pretending to be reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in practices during the Heat’s second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Rockets’ Chris ClemonsDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press
“When you’re on the scout team and you’re one of those developmental players and you’re asked to be one of the stars in this league, those are their favorite practices,” says Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “I’m not going to compare them—it’s not about that—but [Okpala] has some qualities that are a facsimile of Giannis, and it’s been able to help us prepare.”
Clemons probably won’t play much, if at all, in the Lakers series. He appeared in just one game of Houston’s first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, in garbage time at the end of the Rockets’ blowout win in Game 5. He’s still expected to be engaged in the film room, and his scout-team assignment gives him something to focus on.
“It’s two different studies of film,” says Clemons. “We obviously have our team film session, where we go through our game plan and stuff like that. But then I have to go off on my own and do a little bit of extra work to break down some film of the guy I’m playing as, to pick up their mannerisms and their tendencies as best as I can and try to mimic it on the court during these practices.”
Clemons’ assignment changes with each playoff matchup. During the Thunder series, he was D’Antoni’s stand-in for Chris Paul, who at 6’1″ is much closer to Clemons’ size than James is. Should the Rockets beat the Lakers and advance to the Western Conference Finals, there’s an equal chance he’ll be asked to transform into high-scoring Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray or one of the Los Angeles Clippers’ two lengthy superstar wings, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.
“[Playing as Paul] was pretty easy for me because I can pick up most of his stuff already,” says Clemons. “It’s not about me playing for what I play for on the court. It’s more about me giving those guys an accurate depiction of what they’re going to see. It’s a little bit different because I’m trying to focus on playing like somebody else. But it’s my job.”
Not all teams can prepare for playoff matchups in this way. With games every other day in the Florida bubble, some teams don’t know their next opponent until 48 hours before the series starts. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, on the other hand, doesn’t assign superstar counterparts to his benchwarmers because he’s worried it will go to their heads.
“I don’t ever want someone thinking he’s as good as that guy,” Rivers says. “Many years ago, playing for Pat Riley, we were playing the Bulls and Pat decided he was going to use Bo Outlaw as Michael Jordan. And Bo destroyed us in every practice, and then he started thinking he was Michael Jordan, which became an issue. So I decided back then, If I’m ever a coach, I’m not going to do that. We don’t need any of our guys thinking they’re Luka.”
[Ed. Note: Rivers and Outlaw were never teammates. Rivers played for Riley on the New York Knicks from 1992 to 1995; Outlaw was a member of the Clippers at the time. However, Rivers did coach Outlaw with the Orlando Magic from 1999 to 2002. He was likely talking about a different Knicks teammate, possibly Bo Kimble, playing the role of Jordan. It’s still a great story.]
Before Spoelstra became the Heat’s head coach in 2008, he spent 13 seasons with the organization as a video coordinator and then an assistant coach. Riley was hired shortly after Spoelstra started in 1995, and he brought the practice of deploying a scout team with him from New York.
Miami Heat coach Erik SpoelstraAshley Landis/Associated Press
“When we were preparing for the Magic, Mark Strickland played Penny Hardaway in practice,” Spoelstra says. “He was incredible, with his shooting and playmaking and things that he couldn’t necessarily do in his specific role, but when he would ‘be’ this guy, he could do it. Those are always fun practices for a young guy to be able to emulate a star player.”
It’s not always as simple as it sounds. (As D’Antoni puts it: “If we could simulate the Lakers in practice, then we’d be the Lakers.”) But role-playing as the other team’s superstar during playoff practices can help to make younger players who are out of the rotation feel like they’re contributing.
“It’s hard for a guy like me to be LeBron,” Clemons says. “I just try to do my best. We’re trying to practice what guys are going to see out there on the floor. For me, that’s my impact on the game. I just try to do what I need to do for these guys to have an accurate representation of LeBron James.
“Our goal is to win a championship, so right now I’m just focused on any way I can help these guys do that, on or off the court.”
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers’ Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.