At a point in his career where he’d be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, despite still having at least five years of elite-level basketball to play, coming up with only ten defining moments for LeBron James was as difficult as you could imagine.
It seems as if a year can’t go by without some portion of the season or playoffs representing a juncture of his career that we’ll end up thinking about when it’s all said and one. We’ll reminisce of these ten moments, and of course others, and speak of him the way we do of the greats from the ’80s or ’90s.
There’s still a lot of basketball for LeBron to play, so there will certainly be more moments to add to the list. The last five years, however, have been as polarizing as any other NBA player with historical merit; not just in terms of success, but in the moments that led to him being recognized as the player he currently is.
Defining moments can’t just be based on success, because a lot of that success derives from events that brought someone to their lowest point. LeBron is nowhere near where he is today without having failed multiple times over his career.
The same applies to essentially all of the greats. The times where they are kicked into an abyss and forced to recollect their mistakes is when they come back stronger and more prepared. The greatest are known as such because they learn from what they do wrong and improve.
The player who ran away with Rookie of the Year in 2003 does not even compare to the four-time MVP and two-time MVP he is today. His efficiency ranks with two players (Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain) who reached what were once thought to be untouchable peaks.
LeBron hasn’t planted his flag in those peaks, yet. Not with so much basketball left to be played. But for now we can relive those moments that have taken us to where we currently are, far away from watching a high schooler in a white suit shake hands with the former commissioner on draft night.
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10. LeBron gets swept by the Spurs
It was one of the first moments where LeBron James realized that he was not capable of doing it all; the first moment where he realized that change in the future could be needed.
But before teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to create what may eventually be recognized as a dynasty, LeBron was merely a future MVP and scoring champion hellbent on padding statlines and winning titles.
There was no problem with this at first, which is why we give him the benefit of the doubt in the 2007 Finals, considered by many to be one of the most lopsided in NBA history. While the San Antonio Spurs trotted out future Hall of Famers in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, LeBron found himself surrounded by Drew Gooden and Daniel Gibson.
Gooden and Gibson, by the way, were the Cavaliers second and third top scorers, respectively, in those Finals. Yet people legitimately questioned why LeBron would leave Cleveland for a Miami team that boasted two Hall of Famers.
James struggled mightily in those Finals. He shot a paltry 36 percent overall, 20 percent from three, and averaged 22 points in four games. Although the last two games were lost by a combined four points, the Cavaliers seemingly stood no chance against the well-rounded, experienced Spurs.
Suddenly, LeBron began to take a stronger look at his teammates. That’s when the demands for a better team began, followed up by the ensuing hasty signings of Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O’Neal.
While Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh laughed it up on the beach three years later, LeBron began to consider if a homecourt advantage and a few extra millions was really worth it.
9. LeBron throws down the first of many dunks
Consider this tomahawk fast-break dunk against the Sacramento Kings in the 2003-04 opener as a warning to the rest of the league.
The kid fresh out of high school made dunking look too easy. He was as big as a tight end, but glided through the air with the walking-on-air feel of Clyde Drexler and the power of Shawn Kemp. It should have been impossible for someone of that size to get that high and jump from that far, but LeBron would make it a daily occurrence.
As we have come to know, LeBron has become a force to be reckoned with, whether it’s in the open court, in traffic, or in the air. He frightens 7-footers from attempting to block him and is constantly being fouled in the open court because it’s simply easier to foul him than to be demoralized.
Now with the Heat, it’s come to the point where the opponent will give up a wide-open layup to Dwyane Wade or Mario Chalmers than to allow the chance of LeBron going up for an alley-oop.
But there are times when defenders aren’t quick enough to stop a Heat fast break, which leads to plays like this:
Then there are the one-man fast breaks:
The dunks in traffic are always good for a change, too:
And then the downright disgusting:
8. The 9-8 start
2010-11 sometimes feels like such a distant memory compared to the uber-efficient, deep roster the Heat possesses today.
How we forget about the five-game losing streak in March that may have prompted crying in the locker room. Or how the team went a combined 1-7 against the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls. Or the “Bumpgate” created by LeBron bumping–whether it was accidental or incidental we’ll never know–into coach Erik Spoelstra during a timeout of what would be another loss.
And then there’s the 9-8 start that initiated it all. That trying month where the Big Three and the new-look Heat scored eight points in their first-ever first quarter, replicating what recent ill-conceived superteams have done, and could only beat the very worst teams.
Miami found ease in beating the likes of Philadelphia for the first win, the New Jersey Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves, but struggled against the likes of Boston, the Chris Paul-led New Orleans Hornets and the Dallas Mavericks, the team that sent Miami spiraling to a 9-8 start.
But it was that 104-95 road loss to Dallas that changed everything. A players-only meeting was held immediately after and the Heat wound up reeling off 12 consecutive wins and 20 of 21 overall. They came a two-point loss to Dallas away from running off a 22-game winning streak.
It seems so long ago that Miami boasted a rotation featuring the likes of Juwan Howard and James Jones, but it actually happened, just like this 9-8 start that seems unbelievable now as the Heat go for a third consecutive title and a fourth consecutive Finals appearance.
7. One night in Milwaukee…
On a random February night in 2009, LeBron James went on the type of scoring rampage that’s only seen once every few years.
With 22 seconds left in the first half and the Cavs down by 11 to a 27-30 Milwaukee Bucks team, LeBron James hit a three-pointer that was at least three feet beyond the arc to cut the lead to eight. What we’ll soon find out was that this was the catalyst to what would become one of the most dominating and frightening one-man runs in the history of the game.
Twenty-two seconds later, LeBron banked in a fadeaway from 33 feet away at the buzzer. Things were starting to heat up at this point, but it couldn’t have come at a worse time what with halftime putting an end to LeBron’s impending doom.
But not even the 15 minutes of the half could stop him that night.
After a Mo Williams score to open up, LeBron would resume his role of the alpha and the omega, banking in a 20-footer. A few seconds later, he’d step into a 27-footer that hit nothing but net, which was then proceeded by another 27-footer 25 seconds later.
LeBron would actually then miss two free throws to keep us on our toes, making us wonder if the run was over, if we could go back to watching our regularly scheduled programming of actual humans from Earth playing basketball. But of course not. In a 22-second stretch, LeBron would hit two more three-pointers, which was then followed up 29 seconds later by one more jumper to put an end to the run. My memory is hazy, but I think I recall David Stern wheeling out the MVP trophy right there in the Bradley Center at the 9:10 mark of the third.
LeBron scored 22 points in a little more than three minutes and had single-handidly flipped an 11-point deficit into an 11-point lead. He’d go on to finish with 55 points in an eight-point victory.
6. LeBron puts the league on notice
In order to get swept by the San Antonio Spurs two weeks later, LeBron James had to first conquer the same team that hindered Michael Jordan’s playoff runs year after year: the Detroit Pistons.
In a 2-2 series, LeBron’s Cavaliers were locked in yet another intense battle with a Pistons team that was only three years removed from winning an NBA title. Things were beginning to look grim, however, as 12 straight points by Richard Hamilton pushed the Detroit lead to seven with 3:15 remaining.
The Cavs would respond with a LeBron layup and a Drew Gooden free throw to cut the lead to four at the 2:49 mark. At this point, the Cavaliers, outside of LeBron James, disappeared. What LeBron would end up doing over the final 2:17 of regulation and the ensuing ten minutes of overtime would rival that of the most storied players that had ever taken over a game to will their team to victory.
He’d hit a three-pointer with 2:17 left and would then hit a layup, compensating for two missed free throws a minute prior, to give Cleveland an 89-88 lead. Chauncey Billups, however, would respond with a three-pointer, which would then be matched by a driving dunk by LeBron, his second slam in the past 22 seconds.
By himself, LeBron would then put his team in a position to win in the first overtime, scoring all nine points and giving the Cavs a four-point lead with 33 seconds left. However, the Cavs would go scoreless and Hamilton and Billups would both hit a pair of free throws to send it to double-overtime.
Just when Detroit thought they may end up stealing it, LeBron would turn a three-point Cleveland deficit into a tie game with another three, just his second of the night. Not wanting to go into a third overtime, LeBron drove in for an easy layup to give the Cavs a two-point lead with 2.2 seconds left.
After Drew Gooden hit that free throw with 2:49 left, LeBron would score every last Cleveland point, a total of 25 points over the final 2:17 of regulation and the entirety of two overtimes.
He was only 22, by the way, when this happened.
5. The Cleveland finale
When we reached the point where 27 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists was not even close to enough, LeBron James knew that he had to make a serious decision over the next few months.
In a nine-point loss to Boston that ended a promising 2009-10 season, LeBron dropped one of his most robust statlines of the year, lost in a game the Cavs never had a chance, and took his Cavaliers jersey off for the last time upon exiting the court.
LeBron was coming off arguably his worst effort of the season in a 32-point Game 5 loss at home where he recorded 15 points on 3-for-14 shooting, seven assists and six rebounds in over 41 minutes. That came after a ten-point loss in Boston where he only scored 22 points on 39 percent shooting and missed all five of his three-point attempts.
The two wins Cleveland had in the series came during games where LeBron was at his best, scoring 35 on 24 shots in a Game 1 victory and then 38 points on 22 shots in a 29-point Game 3 win. That was the last time we saw LeBron as the laboratory-made cyborg in maroon and gold, because he’d shoot 39 percent or worse in the final three games, while shooting 2-for-13 from three.
He failed to make it to the NBA Finals for a third consecutive year, as well as it being the second consecutive time he failed to lead a team that had won at least 60 games in the regular season. But it ultimately became too tough to burden the load, especially against a well-rounded Boston team that would take the L.A. Lakers to seven games. Shaquille O’Neal was the second-highest scorer for Cleveland in their series against the Celtics, averaging 13.5 points and five rebounds, while Mo Williams shot 21 percent on 19 three-pointers and Antawn Jamison shot 42 percent overall and 19 percent from deep.
And yet it all fell on LeBron, who managed only 45 percent overall shooting and 27 percent from three, but still averaged 27 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. He led the team in every category by a substantial margin.
Realizing that upward growth with Cleveland was just a pipe dream, he joined the team with the organization that was ready to take him to the heights he had aspired nearly a decade for.
4. Don’t cramp my style
Russell Westbrook was not going to allow the Oklahoma City Thunder to lose Game 4. With the way he was driving to the rim with relative ease on the Heat’s best perimeter defenders, eventually finishing with 43 points–17 in the fourth–on 32 shots, none of those points coming from beyond the arc and only three coming from the foul line.
To make matters worse for Miami, LeBron James had just collapsed on a drive and was gimpy as he banked in a layup following a Dwyane Wade block. Things really started to look sour, though, when James needed to be carried off the court with 5:15 left, leaving James Jones to defend Kevin Durant.
As expected, the Thunder took advantage. Durant hit a pair of free throws and then followed it up with a jumper to give Oklahoma City a two-point lead with 4:21 left. With the team in need of a savior, they turned back to LeBron James, who was incapable of driving and planning on throwing up jumpers because he had no choice.
As Bosh hit a jumper to tied it up and Westbrook missed one on the other end, the ball somehow ended up in LeBron’s hands at the top of the perimeter, in that familiar isolation situation he has embraced and thrived on for over a decade.
With his cramped legs nailing hm to the floor, James did the only thing he could do: take a jumper and hope for the best. Thabo Sefolosha and the entire Thunder team knew what he was going to do, yet could do nothing as LeBron hit a jumper over Thabo to put the Heat up three with 2:51 left.
LeBron would be taken out of the game with 55 seconds left in a three-point game, but Mario Chalmers came to the rescue, hitting a layup over Serge Ibaka with 45 seconds left. He’d actually score the final five points as Miami would end up winning by six, setting up a record-setting Game 5 where they’d collectively hit 14 three-pointers.
3. The shot that silenced a million critics
All series long we were at the edge of our seat waiting, contemplating when LeBron James was going to realize that he had a consistent jumper to rely upon. A jumper that he used to shoot a career-high 44 percent in the 18-25 feet range in the regular season was set to temporary retirement by LeBron after a simple, yet effective strategy was put into place by Gregg Popovich and executed by his San Antonio Spurs.
The plan was to just play off LeBron. Put him in a situation where the defense relax off him, but still crowd the paint to force him to either pass or take a jumper. Despite having hit the jumper at a rate he had never experienced before throughout the season, LeBron fell right into the trap San Antonio set. He scored 18 points or less in the first three games of the series, leading to a 2-1 series deficit. To put it into perspective, LeBron had gone for less than 20 points in two consecutive games on only one occasion during the season. He never had a stretch like he had against the Spurs at any point.
Over time, however, LeBron began to regain that confidence that had aided him in winning a fourth MVP and challenging Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain for one of the greatest PERs of all time. He’d go for at least 25 points in the final four games, including 32 in three of those contests.
While Ray Allen‘s shot owned Game 6, on top of LeBron recording a triple-double and having a 16-point fourth quarter to erase a ten-point deficit, LeBron made Game 7 his. He scored 37 points, was in rhythm for every one of his jumpers, shot 5-for-10 from three as the Spurs continued to play off him, and hit the dagger jumper with 28 seconds left to push Miami’s lead to four.
As he’s been accustomed to doing, LeBron also hit a pair of free throws with 23 seconds left to put the game on ice.
He finished the series averaging 25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 2.3 steals, while taking home NBA Finals MVP honors. His face as he poses with his second Finals MVP and Larry O’Brien trophy asks those who ever doubted him: “What more can I say?”
2. Game 6
As you can tell by Stephen A. Smith’s knee-jerk reaction, the Miami Heat were dead in the water and were ready to break up the band after a Game 5 loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.
Smith firmly, and foolishly, believed that LeBron James was not capable of leading his team from the trenches, nor were Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the supporting cast up to the challenge of supporting him.
Naturally, Smith wanted to jump on this in order to be looked at as a sorcerer if he was right. As you’ll remember, the Heat struggled up to this point. LeBron was doing everything, while Wade struggled with Boston’s double-teams and Bosh’s absence following an abdominal strain injury suffered early in the team’s semifinals series with the Pacers.
What went unaccounted for in Smith’s rant was LeBron’s ability to single-handidly lead a team to victory. After all, he did lead the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that boasted Anthony Parker and Daniel Gibson as key rotation players, consistently to the playoffs and even to the Finals in ’07.
That’s why it shouldn’t be surprising that the aftermath of Game 6 was LeBron James dropping 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a 19-point win on the road to even up the series. Also not to be forgotten was Wade coming alive in the fourth to finish with 17 points, as well as LeBron holding Paul Pierce to nine points on 4-for-18 shooting.
James was determined from start to finish. He connected on an eclectic range of two-point jumpers and shots from the perimeter, finishing 2-for-4 from three, and still had time to throw down a pair of dunks, one a blow-by of Pierce and the other an offensive rebound over Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass.
His defining moment, however, came late in the third. Following five consecutive points from Boston to cut the lead to ten, James was left in an isolation at the top of the perimeter with the shot clock winding down. With Rajon Rondo leaving his defender to jabber at LeBron, James rose up over Mickael Pietrus and drained a contested three to push Miami’s lead back to 13, while simultaneously telling the TD Garden crowd to take a seat.
LeBron came short of 50 only because he was taken out of a 22-point game with 3:11 remaining, as well as Wade providing ample support with an eight-point fourth.
Less than a month later and the Heat were NBA champions. Not bad for a team that was broken up only a few weeks prior.
1. Started from the bottom now we’re here.
It wasn’t until he was humbled into oblivion when we truly learned what type of player LeBron James was.
LeBron had never faced as devastating and as tumultuous a time than when he and the Miami Heat lost to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. When the Heat lost those final three games, although you could cite any game besides Game 1 as an example, it revealed that not only is LeBron far from a perfect player, but that he has flaws in his game that go beyond what could be perfected and improved upon in a gym.
When the Mavericks forced LeBron out of his comfort zone, whether it was forcing him to post-up or utilizing a zone to keep him settling at the top of the perimeter, they untapped flaws of his game that proved James was not the all-around player we made him out to be.
There were still several flaws in his game, namely his mental fortitude when encountering situations such as being three games away from winning an NBA championship. He was as passive as we’ve ever seen him, scoring eight total points in a Game 4 loss and being largely ineffective throughout the final three games of the series.
It was strange to see from the same player who had just torn far superior defenses in Boston and Chicago to shreds in the previous two series. But Dallas employed a strong perimeter defensive game, had Tyson Chandler manning the fort down low, and made LeBron play by their rules. It was one of the first times we actually saw LeBron give in to the defense’s demands.
Let’s say LeBron and the Heat somehow pull it out. Let’s say Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh overcome LeBron’s struggles and Mike Bibby decides to actually hit one of the infinite number of wide-open three-pointers he receives. Does LeBron develop a post-game as lethal and versatile as the one he has now? Does he become the epitome of efficiency? Does Dwyane Wade tell him that he has to take over the team if they want to win?
If Miami wins, nobody is humbled and nobody looks to improve. They become satisfied with eeking out a victory over an opponent they were meant to beat. Rather than going into the 2011-12 season humbled and hungry, they go into it cocky and with a sense of being unbeatable.
The loss to Dallas was a realization that Miami wasn’t as flawless as they perceived. Most importantly, it was a revelation to LeBron James that he has a long way to go before he becomes the player he aspires to, which is something similar to what he is today.
Where will LeBron be on the all-time list when it’s all said and done?
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