When LeBron James was drafted to the Cleveland Cavalier’s in 2003, he gave the team something they hadn’t had in a long time: Hope. In 2006, the Cavs made the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Not only was this a new era for the franchise, it was the beginning of the career of the NBA’s most tantalizing hero (or supervillian, depending on which side you’re on).
For the past three years, sports fans have been forced to read about the struggles and mental miscues of one LeBron James. The narratives ranged from “Will James ever get it?” to “Why he’ll never be one of the greats.” With the memes out in full force and what seemed like a whole nation waiting for his impending demise, James rose up like he’s never rose up before. He shut up his biggest critics, re-gained his old fans and pleased his supporters. In short, he did the damn thing.
Watching LeBron torture the league this year got me wondering… when did it really all go wrong? I’m not talking about “The Decision” or the party that followed it, or even his “at least I wake up in the morning and get to be Lebron James” comment. I’m talking about basketball. When has LeBron truly folded under pressure and choked? In trying to answer this question, I decided to analyze every playoff series that he’s ever played. Here’s how it went.
He opened up his playoff career in classic LeBron James fashion, finishing his first game against the Washington Wizards with a triple double and securing a playoff win. His second game however, looked different. He had a career high ten turnovers and was 7-25 from the field. In game 3 he flipped the script yet again, scoring 41 points, including seven of the Cavs last nine points… and this game-winner. After another game-winner by LeBron and two overtime’s later, Cleveland would advance to the second round for the first time since 1993. He finished the series with two forty point games and three thirty point games.
The Cavaliers would open up the second round losing two straight games on the road to the highly favoured 64-win Detroit Pistons. LeBron saw the first of the kind of defense he’d face for the rest of his career and his 22 points were not enough to stop the Pistons steady effort en-route to a blow out game 1 victory. In game 2, the Cavs cut the game to 5 points with a minute to go, but their efforts were wasted. LeBron had 14 fourth quarter points and scored or assisted all of Cleveland’s points in the last seven minutes. In game 3, a LeBron James triple-double and his fifteen fourth-quarter points would lead to the Cavs first win of the series. LeBron had a tough shooting night in game 4 but he scored or assisted on the Cavs last nine points of the game to help them win by two despite 30 points from Rip Hamilton.
With his game-winning assist to Drew Gooden, LeBron had pushed the back to back Eastern Conference Champions to their limit, up 3-2 in the series. He was not supposed to do this. The Pistons finally took control of the series in game 6, even though LeBron was amazing aside from his seven turnovers. He scored 14 points in the fourth and scored or assisted every Cavalier basket in the last five minutes. It wasn’t enough, however. The Pistons took the series in seven games, blowing the Cavs out in game seven by holding them to a franchise-low 61 points. That wasn’t going to cut it.
So in LeBron’s first playoff’s we saw multiple buzzer beaters, a couple fourth quarter comebacks, amazing all-around play and an almost-upset of the favourites to get to the finals… not exactly a disappointment.
Cleveland would make it a lot easier on themselves this time around, sweeping the Arena-less Wizards for their their first sweep in franchise history. LeBron’s average of 28 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists to go with just 1.8 turnovers was more than enough to get the job done.
After last year’s resurgence, the Cavs found themselves on the other side of the spectrum. They weren’t just happy to be in the second round anymore, they were expected to win. In his first game against the New Jersey Nets, LeBron managed to score 21 points, grab 11 rebounds and dish out 7 assists in a defensive grind-out. He was in full closer mode, putting the Cavs up by 4 with 19 seconds to go and making the game-winning block on the other end. LeBron had a spectacular game 2, with 36 points and 12 assists and his 12 fourth quarter points helped give the Cavs the edge. He would struggle in game 3 though, going just 5-16 from the field with 18 points. The Nets grabbed a win behind a triple double from Jason Kidd. He bounced back in game 4, scoring 30 points on 16 shots. Cleveland easily won game 6 to close out the series. They were headed to the Eastern Conference Finals.
This is when things get interesting. With the Pistons next up on the docket, we all know which game is going to hog the spotlight. Let’s talk about the first four games first though. The Pistons once again shell-shocked LeBron with their defensive schemes. He scored just 10 points in game 1, his career playoff-low at the time.
Down 0-2 with their backs against the wall, Cleveland finally answered. LeBron scored 32 points and added 9 boards and 9 assists while the supporting cast put up a steady effort to grab the win. In the next game, with the Pistons shooting just 40% LeBron’s 13 fourth quarter points and his free throw’s to make it a four point game would be just enough to hold them off. And then came game 5. Before this game, we all knew LeBron was special. We just didn’t know how special. This game shut the door on whether he was a better play-making Tracy McGrady or a Magic Johnson with insane scoring ability. We knew he was the more transcendent one. This was LeBron James’ coming out party and he made sure everyone knew about it.
The Cavs closed out the Pistons the next game, behind Boobie Gibson’s unlikely thirty-one points and five three’s. It took them six games to close out the series, but the Pistons knew they were defeated after five. There it is folks… thanks to what didn’t even end up being LeBron’s best playoff game, the Cleveland Cavaliers were headed to the finals… for the first time in franchise history.
The finals were a different story for LeBron and the Cavs though. They struggled… badly. That’s when the criticism first began. Part of it had to do with Kobe fans feeling a little threatened and part of it with how he was playing in the finals. I don’t know how this happens in the NBA, but the Spurs actually threw a junk defense at the Cavs and with no one hitting shots, they had no idea how to respond. LeBron scored just 14 points in game 1. With Duncan and Parker adding over 20 each the Spurs easily blew the Cavs out. LeBron put up 23 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists in game 2 but the Spurs were once again too good. Parker’s 30 points led the team to another blowout victory. In game 3, despite LeBron’s 25 – 8 – 8, 12 of them coming in the fourth by the way, and Gooden’s double-double, the Spurs won it in a close one. LeBron had never faced a team this good before, and it was obvious. In game 4 he took 30 shots but only scored 24 points and had his first double double of the series with 10 assists. With 13 fourth quarter points, including a three to cut the game to two with 4 seconds left, he tried to will the team to a win… but it was too little, too late.
Would it be fair to say that LeBron was disappointing this time around? In my opinion, no. To start off, the Cavs weren’t supposed to even come close to making the finals. It only happened because James absolutely went off against the Pistons. Secondly, the Spurs were just flat-out better. They had three potential all-stars and Bruce Bowen to shut LeBron down. And Pop.
In my opinion, 2008 marked LeBron’s first “I’m the best player in the league” season. The playoffs started with the Cavs usual first-round opponent, the Wizards. I’m gonna cut this short, because… who cares? LeBron averaged 30 points, 9.5 boards and 7.7 assists. Delonte hit a game-winner, LeBron missed one. A few blowouts were exchanged. Cleveland eventually won in six.
Let’s get on to the part of 2008 that matters… the Boston Celtics: One of my favourite teams to watch and one of the best series I’ve ever witnessed (Ha, Witness). LeBron opened up the series with his worst playoff game ever. He hit only 2 shots all game and had 10 turnovers. Despite this and 28 points from KG, it was a close game. LeBron struggled again in game 2 and the Celtics cruised to an easy victory, putting them up 2-0.
Back at home, LeBron’s 21 points and 8 boards would be enough for the Cavs to pull ahead. By the time game 4 rolled around, we finally caught a glimpse of the LeBron we’re used to seeing. Oh, and there was that “with no regard for human life!” thing. LeBron dominated game 6, scoring 32 points and adding 12 rebounds. No other Cavalier even scored in double digits. He had a hand in EVERY fourth quarter field goal in the fourth for Cleveland. The only points not involving LeBron were 2 Joe Smith free throw’s coming off an intentional foul.
And then came game 7. Honestly, if you haven’t watched this game, stop reading, open a new tab and find a download or youtube link. This was one of the best games of the past few years. So entertaining. Anyway, LeBron and Paul Pierce had a mini-duel. LeBron finished with 45, while Pierce had 41. I want everyone to think about the 2 minute mark of this game. Somehow, the Cavs cut the lead to one behind LeBron’s three straight jumpers. We all know the Celtics eventually pulled away but let’s think about this for a moment. James was in striking distance of dismantling one of the best teams ever, the 66-win Boston Celtics… the big 3 in their best year together. Kevin Garnett’s DPOY year. Let’s keep in mind that his team was starting Wally Szczerbiak. He took THAT team to seven games, against THAT team.
LeBron’s former rivals, the Pistons, were on their way out of contention when they met Cleveland in the first round. 2009 was LeBron’s first MVP season, and he opened it up averaging 32 points, 11 rebounds, 7.5 assists and a baffling 1.5 turnovers in an easy sweep. MVP-esque, indeed. I can’t say the second round was much harder for Cleveland either. The only game that you wouldn’t consider a blow out was game 4, and thanks to LeBron and Mo Williams, it was an easy close-out. Notable: LeBron’s stat line in game three: 47 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists.
8-0 in the playoffs, the Cavs were heavy favourites to win the East. However, despite LeBron playing one of his best games, scoring 49 points and adding 8 assists, the Magic were way too hot to be stopped. He even hit a go-ahead and-1 to take the lead in the last minute of the game, but Rashard Lewis answered with a three-pointer. Game 2 was just as close, but this time it was in the Cavs favor. LeBron added 35 points, none as important as this buzzer-beater. Everyone knows about the buzzer-beater. Game 3 at Orlando saw another 40 point game from LeBron… and another Cavs loss. When the Magic hit their shots AND Dwight gets 25… you might as well go home.
To follow up his game 3 performance, LeBron decided to score 44 points, grab 12 boards and dish 7 assists. However, his 8 turnovers hurt the team. Either way, the Magic hit 17 three’s and the Cavs still managed to force overtime. He had 10 points just in overtime, but the Magic couldn’t miss and they took a 3-1 lead in the series. It took a jam-packed LeBron James stat-line for the Cavs to stay alive to force game 6. 37 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists and a steady effort from the supporting cast helped Cleveland cruise to its first easy win of the series. In game 6, LeBron had 25 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds. Somehow, this was his worst game of the series. When Dwight Howard is scoring 40 points on the other end, that’s not nearly gonna be enough. Game 6 and the series went Orlando’s way.
If you’re sitting here thinking, “why can’t I consider this a disappointment if the Cavs were the favourites?” I want you to realize that LeBron had three forty point games, a triple double and a game-winner just in this series. He averaged 38 points, 9 boards and 9 assists in six games. There is not a planet on the world in which that series can be considered LeBron’s fault.
In LeBron’s final year as a Cleveland Cavalier, he and the team handled the Bulls pretty easily. They won three of their five games by double digits. LeBron averaged 32 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists against one of his potential suitors.
The Boston series, coupled with the Decision is where the criticism of LeBron started to get high and heavy. Although he started out the series strong, dropping 35 points and added 7 assists and boards to offset Rondo’s 27 points and 12 assists and take the win, game 2 was a whole other story. The Celtics won in a blow-out. LeBron wasn’t bad… but he could have been better. Game 3 was a signature Lebron James game. He scored 21 of his total 38 points in the first quarter, putting the Celtics away early and setting a playoff record.
And then things turned for the worst. LeBron was decent in game 4, by his standards but this game was “The Rajon Rondo Game”. He scored 29 points, grabbed 18 boards and dished out 13 assists, including this one, which accounts for my favourite moment of that game. And if we’re giving games specific names, I’ll call game 5 “The I am so freaking confused” game. I wanted to know what was going on with LeBron. Everyone wanted to know what was going on with LeBron. He was passive… and the Celtics took full advantage of it. Down 2-3 in the series, the critics started piling on and even his game 6 triple double wasn’t enough to shut them up… because it was in a loss. He also had 9 turnovers to go with that stat line of 27-19-10.
To this day, I don’t believe he quit. It’s gotta be REALLY hard to quit and still grab nineteen rebounds. Something happened though. Whether it had to do with his lingering elbow injury, something in the locker room or with Mike Brown… something happened before game five. LeBron had glistening and disappointing moments in this series, but at the end of the day, it was clear that Boston was a better team. The Cavaliers had no answer for Rondo or Kevin Garnett and Boston went on to goto the finals. One thing that people like to forget though, is that there weren’t many claims about quitting or choking before the Decision.
The Big 3 toyed with the Sixers for five games… There really isn’t much else to say. On to Boston now. The Heat cruised to a game one victory behind Wade’s 38 while LeBron added 22 points and six assists. In game 2, LeBron took the front seat with his 35 points and 7 rebounds. Boston mounted a comeback in the fourth quarter but James’ 12 points during that stretch made it a relatively easy stretch for the Heat. Boston’s first game back home would be their only win of the series.
The Heat closed out the Celtics in games four and five. LeBron’s 35 points and 14 rebounds fuelled the game through out while Wade’s 28 points were during the more crucial parts of the game. In game 5 however, LeBron scored the Heat’s last ten points including 2 three’s that out the game out of reach. He had 33 while Wade topped him with 34 and 10.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals would be James’ worst of the series. He was 5-15 from the field and he allowed his check, Luol Deng, to outplay him with 21 points and 7 rebounds. Rose scored 28 points and the Bulls blew the lead open in the fourth quarter. Game 2 had a very different ring to it though. LeBron scored 29 points, grabbed ten boards and had five assists. On the other end, the Bulls 35% shooting had a lot to do with his pesky defense. The game was tied for a great deal of the fourth quarter until LeBron finally blew the cap open with five straight points that would lead to a Heat win.
Back at home, Bosh’s 34 points coupled with LeBron’s double-double led the heat to victory. Up 3 points heading into the fourth quarter, both him and Bosh scored ten points each to close it out. The Heat closed out game 5 and the series in stunning fashion. With the Bulls up 12 with four minutes to go it looked like the series was heading back to Miami, but LeBron scored nine points and Wade added eight, including an and-1 three-pointer over Derrick Rose.
And then came the Dallas series. But one of the most baffling displays in NBA history didn’t actually start off that weirdly. LeBron finished game 1 with 24 points and 9 rebounds and the Heat cruised to a victory at home. In game 2, he took a backseat while Wade had 36 points and 6 assists. The Heat were dominating this game… until the eight minute mark of the fourth quarter. We all remember this. Wade hits a corner three. LeBron runs at him and they celebrate in front of the Dallas bench. Dallas gets mad and mounts the greatest comeback in finals history. During that run, LeBron scored just two points and was 1-4 from the field. Wade was also nowhere to be found. Dirk hit the game-winner and suddenly, the Mavericks had life.
LeBron once again took a backseat to Wade in game 3, who scored 29 points and added 11 rebounds. While LeBron’s 17 points and 8 assists weren’t bad, they weren’t anything to write home about. However, he did make the game-winning assist to Chris Bosh. Game 4 is when LeBron truly became disappointing. He scored only eight points… EIGHT. He had seven assists, though they were negated by his four turnovers. Wade’s 32 points and 6 boards were negated when he made a costly turnover that put Dallas in control.
Lebron followed up that game with a triple double with seventeen points, but if there was ever an appropriate time to use the phrase “empty triple double” it was this game. He had no fourth quarter points, aside from a dunk in garbage time and Dallas took control of the series, up 3-2. James finally looked “almost” like his regular self in game six, but his 21 points and six assists were far from being enough to force a game seven, especially with Wade having his worst game of the series. The Mavericks built their lead in the fourth quarter and coasted their way to Dirk’s first championship ring.
You can’t justify this series to me. I’ve had this discission over and over again, and LeBron James failed his team. He overpassed, he wasn’t aggressive enough, he wouldn’t take control of the team and he was just flat-out shellshocked by the pressure. On the offensive end, he’d be giving up chances to post up Jason Kidd and on the other side of the ball he’d be letting Marion get to the rim. At the same time, I have to give Dallas credit. Tyson Chandler played like the DPOY anchoring Carlisle’s fail-proof zone, Jason Terry couldn’t miss, Dirk went on one of the most amazing playoff runs of all time. JJ Barea stepped up huge and their role-players couldn’t miss their open shots. At the end of the day though, if LeBron was more LeBron-esque in this series, Miami probably would have came out on top.
And there it was. The first, legitimate, no doubt about it LeBron James choke. The presses were rolling and not much thought went in to the actual content. All hell had broken loose. Sports media had been waiting for this day since July 8th, 2010. From the fourth quarter jokes to the excruciating amount of memes… the world was watching LeBron James face more scrutiny than any other superstar in any era. Worst of all, the contempt wasn’t fuelled primarily by the media, it was fuelled by the masses on Twitter and basketball forums across the nation. However, any good sports fan knows that legacies aren’t defined through failures, but rather the response to failure. Another thing any good sports fan knows: Winning. Cures. All.
If 2011 was the season of the Decision, 2012 was the season of the Response.
Going up against the Knicks with three back to back double digit wins, the Heat left a lot of room for error. Regardless, LeBron still played extremely well. Going 10-14 from the field in his first game, he scored 32 and led the massacre of the Knicks. In their game 4 loss, the Heat couldn’t make a run down the stretch despite LeBron’s 9 and Wade’s 11 in the fourth quarter. Carmelo wouldn’t be denied a win and a missed buzzer-beater by Dwyane Wade sealed the game. The Heat closed the series in 5 and LeBron averaged 28 points, 5 assists and 6 boards for the series.
James was spectacular in his first game against the Pacers. He had 32 points, 15 rebounds and when the game was tied going into the fourth quarter, he erupted for 16 points to close out the game. The Pacers steady attack, led by David West’s double-double was not enough, despite Bosh going down at halftime. In game 2, LeBron racked up 28 points, 9 rebounds and 6 steals and Wade added 24 points off 22 shots. However, with none of the Miami role-players stepping up, the loss of Bosh was too much for the Heat to rally back from. Struggling from the line all game, James missed two free throw’s at the one minute mark that would have put Miami up. Down 2-1, the pressure was on and the level of scrutiny the Miami Heat received was as high as ever. LeBron responded in stunning fashion, dropping 40 points and added 18 rebounds and nine assists. That and Wade’s 30 allowed the Heat to take the edge in the series. The Heat went home and blew the Pacers out behind their defensive prowess and LeBron’s 30 points. In game 6, Wade finally showed up and in a huge way. He had 41 points, 10 rebounds and missed just eight shots the whole game. LeBron added 28 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds en-route to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Bosh-less Heat went up against Boston at home, and in the first two games, he wasn’t dearly missed. LeBron dropped 32 points and 13 boards in game 1 to seal a victory. In game 2, you had to feel for Rondo. He had 44 points, 10 boards and 8 assists but it still wasn’t enough to beat the Heat. LeBron had 34 points, 18 coming from free throws, with ten rebounds and just one turnover. The series headed back to Boston, where the Celtics cruised to a win behind Kevin Garnett’s double double. LeBron’s 34 wasn’t enough with Wade having a rough shooting night and Bosh still in a suit. In game 4, LeBron had 7 turnover’s to go with his 29 points. He did drain a three-pointer to send the game to overtime, but Miami scored just two points after that and the Celtics took the win.
Wade finally showed up by game 5, adding 27 points to LeBron’s 30 but with no other player in double-digits, there wasn’t enough fire-power for the Heat to take an advantage in the series. LeBron and Wade scored or assisted all of the Heat’s points in the fourth quarter but it still wasn’t enough. With the Heat down 2-3 and heading to Boston, the pressure was mounting and the odds were against them. This was LeBron’s whole legacy flashing before his eyes. He knew it, the team knew it, we all knew it. If the Heat didn’t put it all together, and fast, LeBron would face criticism like he’s never seen before. Like no athlete has ever seen before, really.
By now, we all know how he responded. LeBron James played the best playoff game anyone has had in the past five years. James may have said he didn’t want to be the villain anymore during the off-season, but he sure looked like the villain at the TD Garden that night. His 45 points and 15 rebounds silenced a raging building, while he harnessed the raging emotions inside himself to play the best game of his career. James is now the only player aside from Wilt Chamberlain to score 45 points, grab 15 rebounds and 5 dimes in a playoff game. A rule of thumb: When you’re hitting Wilt Chamberlain stat-levels during the modern era, you’re doing something right. I’d never seen anything like it. Not in HD, at least. It was the greatest pressure performance of all time. The Heat closed out the Celtics in game 7 and sports fans all over the world took a collective gulp as they realized how wrong they were about that kid from Akron.
The Heat were making their second straight finals appearance and right away you knew LeBron wasn’t going to make the same mistakes again. His 30 points and 9 rebounds in game 1 would usually be good for a Heat victory, but while LeBron was good… Durant was better. KD’s 36 points overpowered the Heat, still without their all-star power forward, while Wade continued to play poorly. However, LeBron wouldn’t be outplayed by his rival again. He scored 32 points and grabbed 8 boards in game 2, while scoring or assisting on eight of Miami’s last ten points. The key to this series, aside from the greatness of James? A healthy Chris Bosh. His 16 points and 15 boards made a world of difference.
A pivotal game three victory was fuelled by Lebron’s 29 points and 14 boards. And while LeBron’s 2 turnovers early in the fourth quarter helped the Thunder bridge the gap, his six points in the last four minutes put them away. Game 4, a must-win for the Thunder, is something I’ll always remember as “The I feel so sorry for you Russell Westbrook” game. He had 43 points to go along with 7 boards and five assists but it wasn’t enough to keep Oklahoma’s hopes alive. His late turnover and unnecessary foul sealed the game for the Heat, along with a LeBron James’ three that occurred after he injured his leg. Luckily, Mario Chalmers played LeBron for a few possessions and closed the game for the Heat.
And of course, in the most LeBron James way of doing LeBron James things, he closed out the Thunder en-route to his first championship behind a triple double. Bosh added 24 and Wade added 20. The haters didn’t know what to do, memes were getting recalled and adjusted faster than toys from China while Kobe/Durant fans were frantically deleting their tweets from a few weeks ago. Although it was inevitable, it still came as a bit of a shock. The ring-less King had finally been crowned.
After looking back through all of these games and series, it’s clear that LeBron James is a prime-time performer and besides a few speed bumps, he’s had a fairly “clutch” career. This is new beginning for LeBron James. We crucified him for his early failures, and he responded with the biggest “screw you” of all time. There’s a reason we don’t crucify Jordan for his first seven year’s of perceived failure. LeBron James did not disappoint anyone, and now his only job is to stay hungry. At the end of the day, we all make mistakes, we say and do stupid things and we make promises we can’t keep. We’re all human. The difference is there’s no microscope analyzing everything we do. There is for LeBron James, and he responded like a champion.