LeBron James is one of the most polarizing players in NBA history; a flat-out winner who still receives confounding levels of criticism despite having submitted some absolutely dominant playoff performances. He is currently playing in his seventh NBA Finals, winning two of them so far. Last night, he blessed us again with 41 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals in a Finals elimination game.
A lot of the archetypal language used to describe superstars—clutch, a choker, a “winner”—comes after the fact, from armchair basketball analysts. It is never definitive nor is it the be all end all. On the one hand, James has been the league’s best player for much of his career such that performances like these, facing elimination, should never be surprising. On the other hand, a five-game series defeat would have been easy fodder for criticism, a dent in the legacy he plays every part in forging but little role in defining. We have never seen an athlete with more respect for and awareness of his own legacy than LeBron James. Here are the five best instances where that respect and awareness combined with his intrinsic greatness.
1. 2012 Eastern Conference Finals: Miami v. Boston, Game 6
45 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists, 73.1% FG, 2-4 3FG, erased a 3-2 series deficit on the road.
This will always be LeBron’s most impressive performance just for the nature of the stakes. With no championships under his belt, and the Finals meltdown of the year prior directly in his rearview mirror, LeBron faced elimination once again.
This game never seemed in doubt from the opening tip. LeBron was stone-faced throughout, and every basket seemed like a seismic event. He had emphatic put-back dunks where he seemed to touch the sky before careening back down to Earth. He made Paul Pierce look old and slow two years before Paul Pierce was actually old and slow. He wrapped up this series the following game and went on to win his first NBA championship. To many, he finally conquered the demons that led him to Miami in the first place.
2. 2016 NBA Finals: Cleveland v. Golden State, Game 5
41 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks, 53.3% FG, 4-8 3FG.
Monday’s performance was a stylistically similar LeBron performance to the #1 performance; he had powerful dunks, his mid-range jumper came through for him, and he thoroughly controlled the game’s flow. Despite that similarity, the game had a completely different feel to it from the aforementioned performance.
For one, he had a teammate in Kyrie Irving who matched him. Having such a counterpart was necessarily, as the Golden State Warriors are considerably more potent than the 2012 Celtics. Another difference is the fact that this series is not nearly over. LeBron’s game 6 versus Boston felt like he had slayed the dragon manifest in the Celtics. Not a sentient or real-world entity, but actually an extension of his mind and the pressure national media once placed on his winning a championship. But this series, this ordeal, is far from over. LeBron James may need another list-topping performance if he wants to slay this dragon.
3. 2007 Eastern Conference Finals: Cleveland v. Detroit, Game 5
48 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, 54.5% FG, 2-3 3FG.
This was the first truly great LeBron James playoff performance. He was 22 years old and facing the perennial Eastern Conference finalists but still managed to steal a game 5 on the road in Detroit. He had his team’s final 25 points, securing a double overtime victory in which he made one of the league’s best defenses look old and slow, again, a few years before they actually were.
It was a seminal LeBron performance in that it confirmed his ability to handle the insane expectations levied against him since he entered the league. He defeated his first league behemoth, starting to pen the narrative that now places him as one of the greats in league history.
4. 2013 NBA Finals: Miami v. San Antonio, Game 7
37 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 52.2% FG, 5-10 3FG.
LeBron won his second championship by playing spectacularly in the first and only game 7 of his Finals career. This was the game after the Ray Allen game-tying three to force overtime, saving the Heat and LeBron James from a summer of mostly undeserved scorn.
In this pivotal game, LeBron was steadier than he has ever been, making timely threes and playing the best small-ball four of his career. The Spurs fought valiantly just a game after suffering one of the most devastating collapses in playoff history, but LeBron put them away with a mid-range jumper with 27.8 seconds to go, the first and only championship-clinching bucket of his career thus far.
5. 2012 NBA Finals: Miami v. Oklahoma City, Game 5
26 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, 47.4% FG.
Behind a LeBron James triple double, the Heat buried the Thunder underneath a cavalcade of three pointers in route to the first championship of the LeBron James triple-double. LeBron debuted a new tool in this game, driving downhill off a pick and roll, leaping into the body of the helping big man, absorbing the contact while levitating in the air and finishing on the way down. It was the full culmination of his off-season training after the 2011 Finals loss to Dallas, stamping the most dominant LeBron performance of those Finals.
This was the most important instance of LeBron James playing basketball maximally. He was, for the first time, able to leverage his incredible size and speed to draw help defenders whether in the post or off of drives. He dotted the floor with on-point passes to shooters in rhythm, the Heat controlled the game from jump street and LeBron James secured his first championship.