Did LeBron Ever Really Deserve The Unclutch Label?
Following Lebron James dominant performance in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals last night, a lot of discussion has been centered around James ability to rise up to the moment. Following days of trash-talk from Pacers guard Lance Stephenson about Lebron’s mental state, the King came out and delivered blow after blow in a huge win for the Heat, yet another clutch performance on James’ resume.
But Lebron hasn’t always been considered clutch in big game situations.
While some fans had mumbled about James not being a clutch performer during his Cleveland Cavalier days, these ideas only got louder when Lebron joined the Miami Heat.
After the Heat came up short in their first season with the Big 3, the majority of the blame was placed at James’ feet. The MVP had put up paltry numbers in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, leading many to believe Lebron lacked the clutch gene that we had seen so regularly with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
This narrative only grew louder during the ’11-12 postseason, as the Heat trailed the Indiana Pacers 2-1 in the second round heading into a pivotal Game 4.
Up until this point, Lebron was anything but great during “clutch” games (a playoff game in which the Heat are trailing or tied in the series), posting averages far below his regular season numbers.
James averaged just 17 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds per clutch game on a paltry 44% shooting. In comparison, he averaged 27-7-8 on 53% shooting during the regular season. Quite a drop-off for the MVP, whose team sported just a 1-4 record in such games.
And then just like that, Game 4 in Indiana happened.
The Heat were looking at a 3-1 hole and an extremely disappointing second round exit with a loss in this game. In fact, a loss likely changes the trajectory of the entire Big 3 and Lebron’s career.
So how does James respond? With a dominant 40 point, 18 rebound, 9 assist masterpiece on the Pacers home floor. It was one of the most dominant singular playoff performances we had ever seen, the first of its kind in over 50 years.
ELIAS: LeBron is the 1st player to put up at least 40-18-9 in a playoff game in over half a century. (Elgin Baylor, '61)
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 20, 2012
And this was just the beginning for The King.
Lebron followed up Game 4 by throwing up a 30-10-8 in a Game 5 win that helped propel Miami to the Eastern Conference Finals, where James big play in clutch games would continue to grow.
It’s hard to forget the 45 point, 15 rebound, 5 assist masterpiece that Lebron put up in Game 6 of that series in Boston. With the Heat trailing 3-2 and facing an elimination game on the road, Lebron again delivered an all-timer.
And such has been the case for James ever since.
The Heat have been faced with 21 clutch playoff games since that fateful second round series against the Pacers. Their record in that time? An incredible 18-3.
After seeing his play fall off early on, James has actually raised his game to another level when the Heat have needed it most.
Lebron has raised his averages from 27-7-8 in the regular season to 29 points, 6 assists and 10 rebounds per game in clutch situations. The transformation into one of the greatest clutch players in NBA history has been fascinating to watch.
As is the case with most of the greatest superstars in NBA history, Lebron gets even better when faced with a do-or-die Game 7.
James has had a great sense for the moment in Game 7’s. Lebron has been aggressive from the get-go, sacrificing his usual ball movement to set the tone with his scoring. Unsurprisingly, the Heat are a perfect 3-0 in such situations.
Looking at these numbers, you can’t help but to ask if the four-time MVP was ever really not clutch? It’s a tough question to answer. A lot of his struggles and poor numbers in such games can likely be attributed to James’ adjusting to his new team and teammates, specifically Dwyane Wade.
In that Game 4 domination of Indiana, it seemed that Lebron decided to finally take his role as the Alpha Dog on the Heat, and the team hasn’t looked back ever since.
How else can you explain a player going from pedestrian to unstoppable in clutch games, seemingly at the flip of a switch? Just look at the massive difference between James’ numbers before and after that Game 4 classic.
While there are plenty of points that can prove Lebron has or hasn’t always been clutch, at the end of the day, the only thing we know for sure is that James has proven he can come up big when his team needs it most. The “clutch” debate likely will never be settled, all it takes is one bad playoff performance and we’re right back where we started.
If we’ve learned anything from the past 20+ big playoff games for the Miami Heat however, it’s to not bet against Lebron James.