LeBron’s Pivotal Playoff Games: It Gets No Better

Well, the playoffs might have just gotten interesting.  If we’re being honest, these playoffs haven’t been too good.  There have been some great games, yes.  Chicago stunning the Heat in Game 1 without Derrick Rose, Chris Paul going mano a mano with Tony Allen to beat the buzzer in overtime.  And of course, Steph Curry.  Basically any time he stepped on the court with half-healthy ankles was must-see TV.  The Warriors were a blown Game 1 lead away from seriously threatening the now-Western Conference Champion Spurs.

But as a whole these playoffs have been a dud.  Much is due to unfortunate injuries to key players.  Derrick Rose was out all year.  Russell Westbrook went down in the first round on a fluke play.  Chicago and Oklahoma City — if healthy — are two of the three best teams in the league.  Remove them from the equation and things obviously get worse.  The Knicks had kind of a special season, but it ended ugly against a stifling Pacers’ defense.  Fans calling for Mike Woodson’s job was a bad look.  And last night, the “feel good story” of the playoffs — the Memphis Grizzlies — were swept away by the old reliable but never too interesting San Antonio Spurs.

But tonight things might’ve changed for the better on the Intrigue Scale.  Miami lost Game 4 tonight at Indiana.  I didn’t see it coming; not after the beat-down they put on the Pacers in the same arena just a couple nights ago.  But a return to their staple — team defense — and some cold shooting by key Heat players paired with some crappy officiating tilted things Indy’s way, and now we have a 0-0, Best of 3 coming up.

LeBron’s pivotal playoff games are the most interesting parts of the NBA since Michael Jordan returned from his first retirement to the Bulls.  I don’t think that’s hyperbole when you consider the history.  Let’s quickly run through them.

* Game 5, 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, Series tied 2-2, Cavs vs Pistons

If LeBron had a “breakout game,” this would have to be it.  We all knew he was great, but this was a new level.  He led a way-undermanned Cavs team past the mini-dynasty Pistons at Detroit with 48 points 9 boards and 7 assists.  In crunchtime he scored 25 straight points.

(Clears throat.)  Excuse me.

HE SCORED TWENTY-FIVE STRAIGHT POINTS!  That was maybe the craziest performance I’ve ever seen.  The closest comparison I can think of is rookie Randy Moss at Lambeau Field.

* Game 7, 2008 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, Series tied 3-3, Cavs vs Celtics

This was the showdown with Paul Pierce.  Boston clearly had the better team and ended up winning the title.  LeBron had a ridiculous 45-5-6, edging out Pierce’s 41-4-5.  But The Truth had more help and won the game and series.  Still, an epic playoff showdown that was immediately compared to the best of Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird.

* Game 4, 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, Magic lead series 2-1, Cavs vs Magic

The background is important for this one.  Kevin Garnett was injured this season and the Celtics were no longer a serious obstacle in LeBron’s way.  In fact Cleveland won an astounding 66 games that year and had swept both of its playoff series’ before the matchup with Orlando.  They were HEAVY favorites.  In what was Stan Van Gundy’s finest moment as a head coach, the Magic won Game 1 by a point, lost Game 2 by a point (on a ridiculous buzzer-beating trey by LeBron) and took Game 3 at home, setting the stage for a must-win Game 4 at Orlando.

This was the last huge playoff game that LeBron has lost where he was completely without blame.  He had 44 points 12 rebounds and 7 assists.  His team lost by 2 in overtime.  The problem?  His teammates shot 2-12 from three-point range (LeBron is historically-great at setting up wide-open treys) while Orlando made a whopping 17 treys on 38 attempts.  Stan Van knew how to exploit some borderline mismatches and he coached a beautiful series.  With the Magic up 3-1, it was just a formality.  Orlando closed it out at home in six.

* Game 5, 2010 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, series tied 2-2, Cavs vs Celtics

This was the weirdest NBA game that I’ve ever seen.  (This would not be true if — on a winter night in my senior year in college, I hadn’t turned off the TV from a certain Pacers-Pistons game when it appeared no longer in doubt.)  Again, background is important.  Despite the C’s having Garnett back and a strong team overall, they had no business beating Cleveland.  Game 3, played at Boston, was a 124-95 ass-whooping like you just don’t see a road team pull off at Boston Garden.  In any case, Game 4 ended strange.  Cleveland let one get away, and if I remember right LeBron even shot a couple free throws left handed.  (Seriously, what the fuck?)  So Game 5 became HUGE.

And LeBron didn’t even try.  He had 15 points on 3-14 shooting.  If you’ve ever seen LeBron play, you understand those numbers usually mean a cold first half.  It was totally perplexing and if you watched it and don’t think there’s SOME explanation for it — yet to be told — then I have a bridge to sell you.

LeBron’s been ripped for a lot of things in his career and I think that — along with his obvious greatness — has led to a pretty strong push-back of apologists.  But no matter what he accomplishes from last year’s title forward he’ll never erase this let-down.

* Game 4, 2011 NBA Finals, Heat lead series 2-1, Heat vs Mavs

This was another weird no-show from LeBron at the biggest point in the season.  You might remember how Miami took Game 1 and in Game 2 went ahead by 15 with a corner three by D-Wade, with 7 minutes to go, that was followed by the most regrettable taunting session in the history of sports.  Dirk led an amazing comeback win to tie the series.  Game 3 was very competitive; a Miami win.  Game 4 was huge, with Game 5 again to be played at Dallas and the Mavs breathing new life.

And LeBron scored 8 points.

It looked similar to the let-down in Game 5 versus Boston except that it may have had a clearer explanation: the alpha-dog fight with D-Wade.  Wade scored 32 that night, but it was not quite enough.  Dallas won by 3.

Looking back, it really is incredible how close that series was to being a Heat rout.

* Game 4, 2012 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, Pacers lead series 2-1, Heat vs Pacers

Again, the background of this game is important.  The Heat were not yet champions — people still remembered Cleveland versus Boston and Miami versus Dallas.  Also, and more importantly, Chris Bosh was hurt in Game 1 versus Indiana — a Heat win — and the Pacers quickly took Games 2 and 3.  In Game 3, D-Wade blew up at Erik Spoelstra on the sidelines.  The entire season hung in the balance of Game 4.  LeBron needed to step up with one teammate down and another struggling.

So he responded, in a must-win Game 4 on the road, with 40 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists in one of the best playoff performances in recent history.  The Heat got their groove back (D-Wade’s confidence, Bosh’s health), they won the next two games and the series, and eventually won their first title as a Big Three.  But not before the last huge pivotal LeBron playoff game…

* Game 6, 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, Celtics lead series 3-2, Heat vs Celtics

Who said winning that first ring in Miami would be easy?  With Chris Bosh out for Games 1 through 4, and playing limited minutes in Game 5, the Heat found themselves trailing Boston, once again, 3-2.  After the Game 5 loss, Charles Barkley had a message for James on Inside the NBA:

LeBron James, I love watching you play. It’s time you do your thing. I’ve been telling people – they don’t believe me; they’re living in the past – it’s your team. You are the best basketball player in the world. It’s time for you to say, ‘Hey guys. Get on my back. We’re going to win Game 6. We’re going to win Game 7.’ Don’t defer to anybody. You are the best. Quit listening to all this [garbage] you hear from all these reporters. You are the man.

Wow did he take Chuck’s advice.

He dropped 45 points along with 15 boards and 5 assists and somehow those numbers don’t quite do justice to just how individually dominant he was that night at Boston.  Maybe I’ll just let Bill Simmons describe it, since he was there:

I don’t know what happened. I just know the shots wouldn’t stop going in. After about the fifth dagger in a row (he made 10 straight), the crowd started groaning on every make — shades of Philly’s Andrew Toney ripping our hearts out 30 years ago. If you’ve ever been in the building for one of those games, you know there isn’t a deadlier sound. He single-handedly murdered one of the giddiest Celtics crowds I can remember. Thirty points in the first half. Thirty! All with that blank look on his face. It was like watching surveillance video of a serial killer coldly dismembering a body and sticking the parts in the fridge. Only we were right there.

That pretty well sums it up.

So here we are, after the Heat swept the Bucks, took down a feisty Bulls team in 5, and were left facing the 49-win Pacers, the odds of a compelling East Finals seemed slim at best.  But it’s 2-2, Bosh is hurt again, and hey, the most interesting theater the NBA can offer is coming to your living room Thursday Night, if not one or two more times after that.

Enjoy.

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