Brilliance by design: LeBron James' bounce pass to nowhere

CLEVELAND -- Midway through the second quarter of the Cleveland Cavaliers' third game of the season -- an Oct. 29 affair against the visiting Orlando Magic -- the Cavs ran a play that they'll have a hard time topping at any point in the 2016-17 campaign for both its execution and imagination.

The play is recorded in the official box score from Cleveland's 105-99 win over Orlando in its elemental state: with 5:13 remaining in the second quarter, Mike Dunleavy makes 3-point jumper (LeBron James assists), Cleveland leads 54-32.

That hardly does it justice.

In any given game, dozens and dozens of plays are called by a coach and executed by his team. This is the backstory of how the Cavs' play "Punch Snap Hammer" came to be, told to ESPN.com by all the principal parties involved.

The situation

Coming out of a timeout, Kevin Love has the ball at the top of the key and throws a swing pass to J.R. Smith on the right wing. Dunleavy comes from the baseline up to the opposite wing. James, with Aaron Gordon on his hip, swaps positions along the baseline with Tristan Thompson as James goes from the left block to the right block and Thompson goes from the right block to the left block. Smith throws an entry pass to James in the short corner, which starts the action.

Tyronn Lue, Cavaliers coach: "We had it last year, we just never ran it. We didn't really have a lot of time to work on the timing of it. I thought we had a chance this year, having a training camp and just continuing to work on it six to seven times and just getting the pass down, getting the timing down, and then we were just able to execute it in the game."

Mike Dunleavy, Cavaliers forward: "Probably since training camp started, [we practiced the play] maybe three times, four times in six to eight weeks. Not a lot."

LeBron James, Cavaliers forward: "I think I went over it with Mike maybe once or twice. Maybe."

The execution

James receives the pass from Smith and immediately puts it on the floor, driving toward the baseline.

Anonymous Western Conference assistant coach: "All the action is just a false distraction. While they lull the defense to sleep, Thompson sets a 'flare' or a hammer for Dunleavy. LBJ puts the ball on the floor for a baseline drive, baseline drift pass to Dunleavy."

Tristan Thompson, Cavaliers center: "Once he starts the play, once he starts the movement, once he attacks, then I go and set the hammer screen."

With Elfrid Payton's head turned toward James, Thompson sets a "hammer" screen on Payton -- who is guarding Dunleavy -- to allow the Cavs veteran shooter to scoot out to the corner unguarded. What's a hammer screen? Hammer describes the action of the play, more so than the variety of screen. Typically, it involves a post player setting a back screen for a wing player on the opposite side of where the ball is. Rather than the wing using the screen to roll to the hoop, however, the wing player will cut to the corner of the court for a catch-and-shoot opportunity and receive a baseline feed. Before Dunleavy starts his cut, James throws the pass -- a one-handed, wraparound bounce pass -- that covers about 45 feet.

James: "I'm always kind of throwing different passes. Figuring out ways to kind of get the ball over there. I went with the four-seam."

Dunleavy: "A lot of times when teams run that play, the guy getting the shot usually will go early and be there waiting for it. It's better to be a little bit late, and the ball will be getting there at the last second. But the angle that he threw it at, he just had blind trust. He hoped I'd be there."

There are two options on the play. James either looks for Thompson, who rolls after setting the screen, or goes for Dunleavy.

Lue: "There's not many guys that can do that. And then the read is, if the 5 helps, then you got Tristan slipping down the middle of the paint. So, it's really a double read, and you got to be able to read the defense and LeBron with his passing ability and his height and the God-given talent he has. He's able to make either read, so I trust putting it in his hands and executing the play."

"The guy getting the shot usually will go early and be there waiting for it. It's better to be a little bit late and the ball will be getting there at the last second. But the angle that he threw it at, he just had blind trust."
Mike Dunleavy, on getting LeBron's dish

Thompson: "Dive. Just dive right down the middle."

Because of the timing of the play, it is Thompson's responsibility to set a solid screen to free up Dunleavy, or else James' pass will sail out of bounds, resulting in a turnover.

Thompson: "I need to make sure I get Mike open, or that play gets f---ed up. If the ball goes out of bounds, it's my f--- up. So I have to make sure I do my f---ing job. Put that on a T-shirt."

James: "If you come out of the timeout, we work on stuff at practice where it's timing, timing to a T. Execution. Because if you expect for your guy to be there, then he has to be there. And I trusted that once I received the ball, our timing is perfect, and I just let it go."

Dunleavy catches the ball in the corner and goes right into his shot, swishing home the 3 as Payton tries to recover and close out on him to no avail.

WC assistant: "Payton and [Nikola] Vucevic get caught completely napping. Vucevic needs to go all the way over to LBJ or blow up the screen by Thompson. Payton gets completely caught off guard. The other three [Magic defenders] are just pawns in the scheme."

Dunleavy: "To be honest with you, we didn't even get that open. As I recall, we watched the film with Tristan, and he could have probably gotten a better piece of Payton, and the shot was a little tough, too. But it looked good. It worked."

The background

Lue played 11 seasons in the NBA and was coached by nearly as many coaches in Phil Jackson, Doug Collins, Doc Rivers, Johnny Davis, Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Woodson, Avery Johnson, Scott Skiles and Stan Van Gundy. With all of that experience, not to mention his time as an assistant under Rivers with the Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers, Lue filled his playbook with ideas for whenever he got his chance to roam the sideline as the head honcho.

Dunleavy: "We definitely have a lot of stuff that the Celtics ran back when they had their championship year. I definitely recognize a lot of the plays they had. I know from playing for Scott Skiles and talking to Scott Skiles, we got some stuff that he used. So it's a nice little melting pot of stuff he has."

Rivers used a variation of the play in Game 1 of the Celtics' 2011 first-round series against the New York Knicks, freeing up Ray Allen for a game-winning shot. In this case, Paul Pierce threw the pass, and Kevin Garnett set the screen.

Lue: "I know Doc has 'Punch Snap,' and Blake [Griffin], he can make that pass to J.J. [Reddick] too. ... If I have it, Doc's probably somewhere involved in it."

Erik Spoelstra also had a hammer series in his playbook, and he utilized it on perhaps the most famous play in Miami Heat franchise history, the one that ended with Allen's corner 3 in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals.

James: "There is probably like five or six different hammers in the NBA. That's just one of them. We ran one in Miami as well in Game 6 when I missed a 3. That was a hammer action too, but it wasn't the same option. I set the step-up for Rio [Mario Chalmers], and then he took [the screen] down, and then they came up and got me, and [Chris] Bosh got the rebound. So, that's a hammer. There's different types of hammers, but that one to Dunleavy was unique."

The aftermath

James was so pleased with the play against the Magic that he told the media afterward there is "probably only one guy in the world that can make that pass." It was honored as NBA TV's "Assist of the Night," and the video of the seemingly impossible pass thrown to a spot, rather than a man, quickly went viral.

James: "I saw it on social media after the game. It was like, 'S---!' I'm more in awe of passes I make and blocks I make more than me scoring the ball. It was like, 'S---.' And it was on time, on target. And it almost grazed the baseline, too. So, it was pretty cool."

Lue: "They went crazy over that play. It was a nice play. Perfect timing. Tristan was perfect with the screen. With the timing of Mike getting to the corner, and LeBron turning and going baseline and making the whip-around pass. So, it was beautiful."

Dunleavy: "[LeBron] always makes it a little easier."