“You either love ’em, or you hate ’em”
It’s a phrase we use about the greatest and/or most intriguing teams in sports history. We use it because it’s true.
The New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Lakers and now — the Miami Heat. That’s the list. The latter, large in part, because of one man’s Decision.
Regardless of how you feel about LeBron James, one thing is absolutely undeniable: There has never been another athlete who possesses the combination of athletic attributes that he does. And in this writer’s opinion, there never will be again. He’s as original as the production on Yeezus.
Never have I witnessed (pun intended) an athlete as dominant as LeBron James also be as critiqued as he has been throughout his career. Maybe it’s the way he handled the 2010 free agency period and the ensuing Preseason Championship Party. Perhaps it was his comments following Miami’s 2011 NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks, reminding us we all had to go back to work the next day and that we don’t enjoy his luxuries. Or maybe it was the leak of the LeBron X Low that reads “2-Time Champion” on the insole… you know, before he’d won Game 7 against San Antonio. Maybe he’s a victim, a victim of being the first superstar to have to play during a time when, in large part because of Twitter, he is judged on a play-by-play basis. Maybe you’re from Cleveland. Maybe it’s some combination of everything I just mentioned and others I’ve left out.
Whatever the case may be, we poke and pull and jab and rip at James’ game like he’s a real-life variation of the board game Operation.
We wanted him to develop a post game. He did. We wanted to see him develop a consistent perimeter jumper. He did (a career-best 41 percent from three this year). We wanted him to win a ring, dominate playoff games en route to it, win Finals MVP and sustain that level of play from there on out. Check, check, check and check.
Yet it seems with him, and only him, that we still aren’t satisfied. That every time he doesn’t do something on the court the way we envisioned, we rip him. Twitter blows up with his every mistake, loathing over it while belittling his greatest feats because, well, if we were his size, we would never miss a shot, turn the ball over or commit a foul. It seems we’ll always pay far more attention to his two turnovers in Game 2 of the Indiana series than his game-winning layup in Game 1. Even on that play, it was not LeBron’s brilliance, it was Paul George‘s defensive miscue. That is not my opinion, but the unfortunate fact is that’s how we view the play. It seems as though even when he is winning, he can’t win.
Whatever the reason is or reasons are for how we analyze his game, I just hope that while doing so, we truly appreciate what we’re watching. Because again, we’ll never see another one like him.
And in case you have forgotten how great he has been over the course of his career, I’ve done you the solid of looking back at his 15 best playoff performances. Without further ado…
*** *** ***
15. 2006 First Round, Game 3 at Washington
This was the first real test of LeBron’s playoff career. Playing in Washington and coming off a terrible performance in a Game 2 loss (7-for-25 shooting, 10 turnovers), the King faced off against a hungry Wizards team and an explosive Gilbert Arenas (17 fourth-quarter points while being serenaded with “MVP” chants). He responded convincingly. LeBron countered with 41 points on 28 shots, and made the game-winning four-footer with 5.7 seconds left. That’s a crab dribble, baby. A crab dribble.
14. 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5 at Chicago
It wasn’t so much the points, although he scored a game-high 28. It wasn’t so much the rebounds, although he grabbed a game-high 11. It wasn’t so much the defense either, although he forced MVP Derrick Rose into 9-for-29 shooting. It was the when of it all.
Game 5, on the road against the No. 1 seed, down double-digits with less than three minutes to go, LeBron (and Wade) went on an 18-3 run to wipe away a 12-point Chicago lead and vault Miami to the Finals. James banged a triple to make it a five-point game with two minutes left. That shot forced a Bulls timeout. Then, a minute later, LeBron tied it with yet another three-pointer. With 29.5 seconds left, the King buried another jumper to put the Heat up 81-79, and on the other end, he put the icing on the cake by stealing a bad pass from Rose.
13. 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 4 vs. Detroit
No one remembers the calm before the storm. Just two nights later, LeBron would have his #ESPNClassic moment in Detroit in Game 5 (more on this later), which, unfortunately, completely overshadowed this masterpiece.
During close losses in Games 1 and 2 in Detroit, James had scored a total of seven fourth-quarter points, while passing up a potential game-winner at the end of the first game and being unable to even get a shot off at the end of the second. The haters were coming out in droves, blaming LeBron for his inability to find the same killer instinct MJ had. We should’ve known what was coming next. He went for 12 in the fourth of Game 3, and then got even freakier in Game 4, pouring in 13 points to tie the series at two.
Steve Kerr could barely contain himself from the announcing booth. LeBron missed only two shots from the floor in the fourth, made all five of his freebies, and even added four boards and three dimes. By the end, the King had an easy 25 points and 11 helpers.
“I told my teammates, ‘Get me to the fourth and if it’s close, and I’ll try my best to win,” James said afterwards.
12. 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 4 at Boston
It’s a shame this game often gets overlooked when talking about the big moments in LeBron’s career. Let me run a few numbers by you. The Celtics were looking to tie the series up at 2, and were coming off Rajon Rondo‘s legendary “one-armed” performance. D-Wade had lost 11 straight playoff and regular season games in Boston, and LeBron was nearly as bad, having lost 13 of 15. The public’s hatred of Miami was never greater, the stakes and pressure of a second-round playoff series never higher.
Boston took the lead with under two and a half minutes to go on back-to-back threes. LeBron? He responded with a triple to tie it and then made a left-handed layup with 48 seconds to play. From there, he helped finish off Boston in overtime, putting Miami up 3-1, and ending the night with 35 points and 14 rebounds in 50 minutes.
11. 2006 First Round, Game 5 vs. Washington Wizards
LeBron posted a 45-7-6 in what became the best performance of his first-ever career playoff series. With the series knotted at two games a piece, James gave his team the 121-120 win on a game-winning layup. The Cavaliers closed out the series in six.
10. 2008 Second Round, Game 7 at Boston Celtics
The fact that this performance comes in at nine speaks volumes for what LeBron James has been able to do in his postseason career. James’ 45 points weren’t enough to advance because Paul Pierce posted 41 for Boston in an epic duel between the two superstars.
9. 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1 vs. Indiana Pacers
James’ triple-double (30-10-10) and game-winning layup set the stage for a great series in this year’s postseason. With the feat, James became the first player in NBA history to record a triple-double and hit a time-expiring, game-winning shot in the same game. You can bet these two teams will meet again in the future.
8. 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 2 vs. Orlando Magic
This game provided what is still the signature shot of LeBron James’ career: a game-winning three-pointer as time expired. The three capped a 35-point performance and tied the series at one game a piece.
7. 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5 vs. Orlando Magic
Cleveland was down a point heading into the fourth quarter of this elimination game. LeBron posted a 37-14-12 en route to a 10-point win to force a Game 6.
6. 2012 Second Round, Game 4 at Indiana Pacers
This game presented the exact turning point where the Miami Heat officially became LeBron James’ team. Facing the possibility of a 3-1 deficit, James posted a 40-18-9. At one point, he and Dwyane Wade scored 38 straight Miami Heat points.
5. 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6 at Boston
If there was still any doubt as to who held the reigns of the Miami Heat franchise, this performance cleared the air. Facing elimination in what would have been a colossal failure for this Heat team, LeBron rose to the occasion and posted a 45-15-5 on the road, much to the dismay of the Boston faithful. Many consider this the King’s greatest game to date.
4. 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5 at Detroit Pistons
My personal favorite game of LeBron James’ career. I remember watching this game with my cousin Larry on a 30-inch TV in his bedroom. It was exciting because we could feel that we were really watching something great, that we were watching a superstar in the making. It was also at a time when LeBron and the Cavs were huge underdogs and absolutely thrilling to root for. The King infamously finished this game scoring his team’s final 25 points and 29 of their final 30.
3. 2012 NBA Finals, Game 4 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Not many would drool over the stat line. James posted a 26-9-12, which is still incredible. But we’re talking about ‘Bron and you know how that goes. More importantly, James hit the go-ahead three with 2:50 left in the game after suffering a leg cramp. Miami never looked back, withstood 43 points from Russell Westbrook (17 in the fourth) and took a commanding 3-1 series lead, which is the underrated part. If James doesn’t make that three, who knows if Miami wins the game, or even the series. A 3-1 lead is much different than a 2-2 tie, obviously, which is why this performance ranks so high.
2. 2013 NBA Finals, Game 6 vs. San Antonio Spurs
I thought long and hard about placing Tuesday night’s game in the top spot. Not that I was unsure. It was just to make sure that I wasn’t being a prisoner of the moment. The fact is, however, Game 6 had everything we love about LeBron James and everything we love to ridicule LeBron James for. We witnessed everything from another one of his big-time vintage blocks (on Tim Duncan, nonetheless), to a late-game turnover on a miscommunicated lob play to Chris Bosh, and all the way to his huge deficit-cutting three. This was all in the midst of a spectacular fourth quarter, most of which he played without a headband (you know we love to blow things like this out of proportion) that spearheaded a comeback for the ages. It saved his team’s chances at back-to-back championships. Did I mention he had ANOTHER triple-double (32-10-11, the 10th of his playoff career, and just the third player ever to record a triple-double in an elimination game in which his team won).
It was a spectacular, vintage performance from the King, another one that came when his team needed it the most. That’s something we don’t give him nearly enough credit for. It’s just a shame so many Heat fans didn’t hang around to watch it conclude.
1. 2013 NBA Finals, Game 7 vs. San Antonio
In the biggest game of his life, LeBron not only hit the title-clinching jumper immediately after one of the game’s all-time greatest players missed a layup. He did everything people thought he couldn’t. After spending the second half of Game 6 in the lane, LeBron hit jumper after jumper in Game 7, answering the bell every time the Spurs threatened to take the lead. He made standstill triples. He scored off the bounce. He accepted the space and canned pull-ups.
To really understand how satisfying this performance must’ve been for him, think back to 2007. That year, in the Finals, the Spurs watched ‘Bron wilt under the pressure of having to hit outside shots. He couldn’t do it. Cleveland got swept. Then, through basically six games in 2013, it felt almost like deja vu. San Antonio clogged up the lane and dared the King to beat them from 15 feet and beyond. Finally, fittingly, he came through in the most pressure-packed moments.
All in all, he finished with 12 rebounds, and 37 points on 23 shots, including five triples. This IS the definition of clutch.
Is LeBron one of the most clutch players ever?
Follow Bryan on Twitter at @BryanConfer.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.