The image still surprises me every time it appears in ESPN’s opening montage for these Eastern Conference finals. Right after the famous clip of John Havlicek’s steal against the 76ers in Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern finals comes an image of LeBron James, wearing his Cleveland No. 23 uniform, rising for a buzzer-beating three-pointer over Hedo Turkoglu to win Game 2 of the 2009 East finals over Orlando. It catches me off guard because James’ play in that series has to be the greatest forgotten postseason performance in NBA history — forgotten because the top-seeded Cavaliers, featuring Mo Williams as their second-leading scorer, lost to the Magic in six games.
James averaged just about 40 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in that series. He won Game 2 on what should be the signature shot of his career. That followed his ridiculous 49-point performance in a Game 1 loss, during which he shot 20-of-30 from the floor, scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, hit an “and-one” runner (plus the foul shot) over Dwight Howard to put Cleveland ahead by one point with 25 seconds remaining and forced a tie-up with just over a second left to give the Cavaliers one final shot. In Game 4, a crushing overtime loss, James scored 10 more fourth-quarter points, including two free throws with less than a second left to force overtime, and then added 10 of the Cavs’ 14 points in the extra session. In Game 5, with his team facing elimination and the score tied entering the fourth quarter, James scored 17 points to pull away from Orlando.
Last-second free throws, go-ahead baskets within the last 30 seconds, 40-point games, monster fourth quarters — it does not get any more clutch than this. And yet, in the minds of many, it is almost as if this series never happened. The discussion about James’ “clutch” play focuses mostly on his failures — his Game 5 no-show against the Celtics in the conference finals two years ago, and especially his meltdown in the Finals against Dallas last season.
It is absolutely fair to scrutinize James’ disappointing performances and conclude that he sometimes lacks the confidence or fearlessness to play at his best in high-pressure moments. He failed badly in the Finals last season, and I wrote two separate posts titled, “The Failure of LeBron James.” In the last two weeks alone, I have written twice about James’ continuing tendency to become more pass-happy in the final minutes of close playoff games, and how he spent several crucial possessions in Miami’s Game 5 loss to Boston on Tuesday standing harmlessly in the corner or rolling there at turbo speed after setting a pick for Dwyane Wade — the kind of super-fast cut to the wing that takes him out of the play, and not the sort that makes him a target for a pass at the foul line.
But if you want to have a serious discussion about James’ career and his big-game chops, you have to count everything — both within a game and in the larger picture of his career. You cannot cherry-pick possessions and games, leaving out arguments or entire series because they don’t fit your argument.
You are not having a serious discussion about James if you have already dismissed his masterpiece on Thursday night in Boston as “unclutch” (because the game wasn’t close) or relevant only pending the outcome of Game 7 in Miami. You are not having a serious discussion if your analysis of James’ “clutchness” is based solely on his shooting numbers in the last X minutes of games in which the scoring margin is X points or fewer. That is part of the picture, but any picture of “clutch” that leaves out his evisceration of Boston on Thursday is worthless. A recitation of the facts is unnecessary; you saw what he did for a team whose second-best player was awful for three quarters, whose third-best player is still making his way back from an injury at the worst possible time and whose remaining players cannot be counted on to provide any offense at all on a game-to-game or even quarter-to-quarter basis.
James did everything for Miami on one side of the floor. He hit shots both sustainable and unsustainable (he finished 19-of-26 and scored 45 points, to go with 15 rebounds and five assists), worked in the flow of the offense and outside of it, drew all of Boston’s attention and kicked the ball unselfishly — and productively — when that attention turned to strong-side overloads and double teams. He did it in a blowout, one of his own creation, and within a series the Heat still could lose.
But it matters on the record just the same. Yes, some games matter much more than others, which is why it’s absolutely fair to weigh James’ ghastly Game 5 against the Mavericks last season much more heavily than his fourth-quarter explosion to ice Game 3 against the Knicks in New York during the first round of this year’s playoffs. But that Knicks game still lurks on the record, challenging the idea that James is a chronic choker.
Heck, even characterizing James’ performance in a single game demands rigorous analysis from folks lucky enough to have platforms that can influence fan perception. Watching Game 4 of this Miami-Boston series in real time, it was easy to conclude that down the stretch, James regressed into the tentative phantom that blew the Finals last season. But everything blurs live. Go back and re-watch, and you’ll see a bit of everything – James attacking Ray Allen off the dribble; posting up Marquis Daniels and Mickael Pietrus; hitting a game-tying three pointer with less than 40 seconds to go (clutch!); tossing passive hot-potato passes to Wade and Mario Chalmers (unclutch!); and standing still beyond the three-point arc, a total non-threat. It’s all there, all part of the record. And James is such a good passer that some of those dishes that look so weak on first glance are actually clever, provided you notice that sneaky Udonis Haslem back screen freeing Chalmers in the right corner.
Ken Berger of CBSSports.com did the same possession-by-possession exercise for Game 5, during which James indisputably took possessions off by hiding out on the wing — not cutting for the ball, but just standing and resting. But as Berger noted in his fantastic, in-depth look at that fourth quarter, James also exploded for several baskets early in the period, attempted a crucial corner three-pointer with 1:13 to go, drove into a triple team with less than three minutes left to free Chalmers for a three-pointer, and did the same to get Chalmers another open look with 45 seconds to play.
It’s all there — failure, success, aggression, strange passivity. We should notice all of it, remember all of it. This stuff doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of life, or even in the big picture of the NBA; LeBron is a first-ballot Hall of Famer already. But in judging and branding a player, every game — or at least every playoff game — deserves its place in the evidence room.
The Finals are a different stage, and James must still prove himself there. He may never perform at his best in that situation, and if his career goes that way, it will be incomplete in relation to the game’s other greats. But Thursday’s game joins a pretty large pile of others — against the Pistons, Magic, Celtics, Pacers and Bulls — that serve as a reminder that anyone making blanket statements in either direction about James’ “manhood” or “confidence” or “response to pressure” is wrong.