All Hail The King

“He is a very, very special basketball player. Very special.”

David Blatt hasn’t coached LeBron James for long but he already has a good sense of The King’s greatness.

In Game 5 of the East Semi Finals LeBron did what he usually does in the big moments – he dominated. And in doing so he’s given the Cleveland Cavaliers a 3-2 series lead over the Chicago Bulls.

38 points.  12 rebounds.  6 assists.  3 steals.  3 blocks.  Zero turnovers.

It was yet another outstanding playoff performance from one of the all-time greats.

Time and time again, over the past 12 seasons, James has risen to the challenge of the big games.  Elimination games, series-defining moments… The King is ready.

Sure, he’s not perfect, but the ‘LeBron’s not clutch’ narrative is well and truly dead.  I mean, c’mon, that thing’s decaying ten-feet under.  No-one’s even sure where it’s buried anymore.

On the back of his memorable Game 4 buzzer-beater and his inspired performance in Game 5, the Cavaliers are now poised to advance to the Eastern Finals for the first time since 2009.

After all, according to ESPN Stats and Info, the Game 5 winner of a tied 7-game series has gone on to win the series 82% of the time.

LeBron is a student of history.  He knows that stat.  He also knows the importance of avoiding a two-game deficit. That’s why he’s almost always dominated in those situations.  His lengthy list of dominant postseason performances consists of piles of games to even a series or take a crucial 3-2 advantage.  Game 5 vs Washington in 2006, Game 5 vs Detroit in 2007, Game 2 vs Orlando in 2009, Game 4 vs Indiana in 2012, Game 6 vs San Antonio in 2013, the list goes on and on.

If they do advance, it will be LeBron’s seventh trip to the Conference Finals.

LeBron was in attack mode from the opening tip of Game 5, scoring 24 first-half points.  It was the same kind of aggressiveness he displayed in the first half of Game 2, after the Cavs dropped the opening game of the series at home.  James had no interest in getting down 0-2 so he began Game 2 with 22 first-half points, propelling his team to a 19-point halftime lead.

That’s part of what makes him great – the ability to sense the moment and rise to it.AP BULLS CAVALIERS BASKETBALL S BKN USA OHOver the course of his career, LeBron is now 10-for-21 on go-ahead or game-tying shots in the last thirty seconds of regulation or overtime per BasketballReference.com.  For comparison, Kobe Bryant is 7-for-27. A strike rate of nearly 50% in those situations is downright insane.

Interestingly, what has made James so dangerous in those situations over the past 12 seasons is his sense of ‘team’ and his willingness to pass; something he was criticized for during the early days.  He is one of the greatest passing forwards ever and has always shown a high level of trust in his teammates to take and make big shots.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s gonna inbound the ball with the game on the line – best leave that to an Aussie I would’ve thought.

The bottom line is that haters like Skip ‘Look at Me’ Bayless will always have something to say, but LBJ has no fear for the big games or the big moments.

In fact, Neil Payne from FiveThirtyEight.com crunched some interesting numbers yesterday that suggest LeBron may be the most clutch playoff shooter of his generation. Not Kobe.  Not Dirk.  Not even The Truth.

“There’s no doubting James’s history of knocking down big playoff shots,” Payne wrote. “James has shown that he’s better at knocking down such consequential buckets than any other player of his generation.”

But there’s more to being clutch than last-second shots.  In fact, the ability to sense the importance of a particular game and elevate your play accordingly – to will your team to victory over 48 minutes – is perhaps even more important.

Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals is the perfect example.  Down 3-2 to the Celtics, LeBron walked into TD Garden on a mission.  Losing simply was not an option.  Those who saw that game will never forget it – the look in LeBron’s eye that night was what Paul Pierce refers to as ‘it’.  The Raptors may not have ‘it’ but LeBron James has more than he can handle.

James demonstrated the same approach in Game 5 vs Chicago.  Only 48 hours after rolling his ankle in Game 4, James overpowered the Bulls with an unparalleled level of all-court brilliance.

“LeBron was just outstanding,” Blatt said. “I mean, in every element of the game.  You can’t pick a thing that he didn’t do at the highest level.”

Including his toughness.

“Nobody’s talking about it but did you see what happened to him in the last game?’ asked Blatt, referring to LeBron’s ankle.  “Most people that happens to, you don’t see them for three weeks.  That guy played the rest of that game and he played a full great game today.”

According to ESPN Stats and Info, James’ Game 5 production placed him alongside Larry Bird and Shaquille O’Neal as the only players to have 35 points, 10 rebounds and five assists with no turnovers in a playoff game.

After shooting less than 50% in each the first four game of the series – and averaging over 5 turnovers per game – James promised to be more efficient in Game 5.  Looking at the boxscore postgame, he was pleased to have delivered on his word.

“No turnovers!” he said. “That’s the first stat I always look at after the game. I just try to be efficient for my teammates.”

Efficient, yes.  And clutch.

 

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