Witness: 11 playoffs with LeBron James

The evolution of Playoff LeBron

by Daniel Rowell

May 10, 2015

With 1.5 seconds remaining in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals and a tie game, 84-84, LeBron James walked into a timeout and didn’t like the play. David Blatt had drawn up an inbounds play for the final shot with James inbounding the ball. James had shot 9-of-29 from the field, one-of-seven on three-point attempts. In the previous two possessions, James had been called for an offensive foul and had a layup blocked by Nikola Mirotic. But he still wanted the shot:

“I was supposed to take the ball out. I told coach, ‘There’s no way I’m taking the ball out unless I can shoot it over the backboard and it goes in.’ I told him, ‘Have somebody else take the ball out, give me the ball, and everybody get out of the way.'”

The Cavaliers, were down 2-1 in the series with the Chicago Bulls, having lost Kevin Love for the postseason due to a torn ligament from a dislocated shoulder. J.R. Smith missed the first two games of the series from a suspension. Now, the Cavaliers were trying to keep from falling into a difficult 3-1 hole in the United Center.

With Matthew Dellavedova inbounding the ball on the baseline, the Cavs put James in isolation on the far left side of the court. James leaned into Jimmy Butler, hinting at a roll to the basket, before popping out to the corner. It bought him just enough space. With Butler’s arm up to contest, James faded back and hit a 22-footer at the buzzer. 86-84, Cavaliers win. He charged down the sideline to his bench, his teammates chasing after in disbelief.

And here’s the thing, it was an ugly shot. He is leaning way back, off balance. He lands on one foot and hops back twice as it goes in. James had shot 31 percent up to that point, but with Irving 2-of-10 from the field, the only other option for a catch and shoot was J.R. Smith (who was 50 percent on the night). James had no business making that shot, he was shooting 15 percent on three-pointers in the postseason up to that point and Blatt wasn’t wrong for considering a play to set-up someone like Smith. But as the only real option for the Cavaliers and a must-win moment, James knew he needed the shot, and he took it.


This season, the Cavaliers three-point shooting is a bit different. For one, James is averaging a career-low in points for the postseason, “just” 23.6 points per game. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers are averaging 34 three-point attempts and making 45.5 percent of them. They are undefeated through nine games, and James is trusting his teammates to shoot. Against the Pistons in the opening round, James was outscored by a teammate (Kyrie Irving) for the series, just the second time that has happened in his career (the first in 2010 with Dwyane Wade). And in a record-breaking 25 three-pointers hoopla in Game 2 against the Hawks, James confessed that J.R. Smith “has the ultra-green light.”

James now finds himself in a familiar territory, his sixth straight Eastern Conference Finals and the eighth of his career. At 31, James will now have more appearances in the Conference Finals than both the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavalier franchises (and the Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Wizards, Mavericks, Magic, Nuggets, Nets, Clippers, Hornets, Raptors, Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Timberwolves.) Through eight Conference Finals and six NBA Finals, a lot has changed for LeBron James. From his debut in the ECF in 2007 against the Detroit Pistons, his fourth year in the league, to four straight with the Miami Heat from 2010 through 2014, and now back again with the Cavaliers. James has had a few different looks in the ECF, both with and without headbands. Just look at the narrowing boxplots of his scoring through 11 postseasons and you can see how he’s evolved and refined his game.

Points Box Plot by Year

Data from Basketball-Reference.com

A quick note on how to read a box-and-whisker plot for all those that opted out of Statistics in high school: The points are a distribution of LeBron James’s scoring from playoff game logs. The gray box represents the range of his scoring from 75% of the games played, with the median at the point where the box changes color. The extending lines above and below the box (whiskers) represent 1.5x the range of the gray box. All points outside those whiskers are considered outliers. So, the Game 5 double-overtime game against the Pistons in 2007 where LeBron scored 48 points? Outlier. That seven-point flop against the Pacers in 2014? Outlier.

It’s incredible to imagine a player through three different teams taking each to an NBA Finals across 11 straight years in the playoffs. His 6-1 record in the Eastern Conference Finals is almost unprecedented (Michael Jordan was 6-2). But if there’s one thing that stands out through eight games in the 2016 Playoffs, it’s that this LeBron James is just a little bit different. Whereas, in 2015, James scored more than 24 points 75 percent of the time, in 75 percent of his games this postseason James has scored fewer than 25 points.

Photo by John Biever/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

May 31, 2007

With 38 seconds remaining in the first overtime period of Game 5, the Cavaliers up 98-96, LeBron James dribbled off a screen from Anderson Varejao at the top of the key, chased by Chauncey Billups and running directly into Jason Maxiell. They forced James to the sideline with Rasheed Wallace waiting to trap. James fell back for an off balance 20-footer, it was good. 100-96.

James was in the first Conference Finals of his career, just the third for the Cavaliers franchise, tied 2-2 against a Pistons team that was in their fifth straight Eastern Conference Finals. James had scored the last 16 points for his Cavaliers, bringing them back from a seven-point deficit in regulation. He’d score the final 25-points for his team in a double-overtime win at the Palace, a 48-point performance that would become his signature victory for the Cavaliers.

The win gave a whole new meaning to Nike’s “We are All Witnesses” campaign. James was just 22-years-old and exhausted. In the locker room he spoke of his two-year-old toddler waiting for him at home:

“I’m banged up. I’m winded. I’m fatigued. I’ve got all day tomorrow. It’s going to be tough to get some rest when you got a crazy, 2-year-old running around the house. So hopefully, I can take him to one of his grandma’s house.”

The Cavaliers would go on to close out the Pistons in Game 6, punching their first ticket to the NBA Finals. From high school phenom to the hero of Northeast Ohio, he was leading a team to a championship series in just four years, and doing it almost completely by himself. The roster assembled around him — Zydrunas Ilgauskas,  Daniel “Boobie” Gibson, Drew Gooden, Damon Jones, Larry Hughes, and Anderson Varejao — shot 44.7 percent from the field that season, 24th in the league.

James was still developing a shot, just 28.0 percent on three-pointers in the postseason, getting most his points by attacking the rim. After that off-balanced jumper that put his team up four, James air-balled a three with six seconds left, a miss that led to the second overtime. In the Finals, the Spurs let him take that shot, he was 4-of-20 from three-point range, and took 90 of the team’s 314 shots in the series. The Cavaliers were swept in four. In the next stage in James’s career, he’d do even more.

Photo by Bob Rosato /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

May 22, 2009

With one second remaining in regulation in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron found himself again taking the big shot for his team. The Cavaliers, down 95-93 were at risk of losing both home games to start the series, a difficult hole to climb out of. With Mo Williams inbounding the ball, James moved from the free throw line towards the basket, picking up Hedo Turkoglu before popping out to the top of the three-point arc. Rashard Lewis trying to cut off any pass to the paint had left a pass open for James. He set his feet as he caught the pass and faded back for the shot at the buzzer. It rattled in in front of an elated Cleveland crowd. Cavaliers win, 96-95.

The Cavs were a combined 4-of-18 on three-point attempts up to that point, but got the shot when it mattered most. Still, the single home win to start the series wasn’t enough. Cleveland failed to retake home court advantage in Orlando and the Magic took the series in six games, James’s only loss in the Eastern Conference Finals. A 63-win Cavaliers team that had dominated in the regular season in large part due a MVP season from LeBron James had fallen short.

James had the second-highest usage rate of his playoff career at 36.4 percent, and was executing at 61.4 true shooting percentage, also the second-highest of his career. Despite moves that acquired Mo Williams, Wally Szczerbiak, and Ben Wallace, the Cavs didn’t have enough around LeBron. Orlando let LeBron James carry his team, and shut down his help. He outscored his teammates by twenty points per game in the series and the Cavaliers had no answer to the inside-out attack from Dwight Howard, Turkoglu, and Rashard Lewis.

TS% vs. USG%

Data from Basketball-Reference.com

It’s bittersweet to think that 2009 LeBron James may have been in the best scoring performance of his career and yet it wasn’t enough. A median 36.5 points (meaning half his games scored over that amount) is his high mark through 11 postseasons. He got to the line for 14 free throw attempts a game, the next closest player was Howard with 9.9. And it still wasn’t enough.

One more rebuild with the original “Superman”, Shaquel O’Neal, in 2010 failed to make it back to the Conference Finals and James would leave to South Beach in the offseason where he’d find the help he needed.

Photo by Greg Nelson /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

June 18, 2013

With nine minutes remaining, the Heat trailing 82-77 to the San Antonio Spurs, James passed back out on a drive to the paint, finding Chalmers at the top of the arc. Chalmers drove back in before attempting a lopsided jumper, contested by Manu Ginobili. But before the Spurs could react, James was elevated at the rim to catch the wild shot, dunking it for the putback. He ditched his headband as he landed back on the ground before chasing back after a Spurs fastbreak. James had scored 8 en route to an eventual 18 fourth-quarter points in an impressive comeback in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

With the Heat, James didn’t have to hit the buzzer beater and he didn’t need to do everything for his team, but he still left everything on the floor. In a must-win Game 6 in San Antonio, he ditched his headband and took off in the fourth quarter as a part of a 32-point, 10-rebounds, 11-assist, triple-double performance. When asked about his mindset, down ten points going into the fourth quarter, he laid it all out:

“Leave everything on the floor. If we are going to go down tonight, we are going to go down with me leaving every little bit of energy that I had on the floor.”

He put himself out there for his teammates and his teammates responded in kind. He missed the game-tying three-pointer at the end of regulation, but a rebound from Chris Bosh and corner three-pointer from Ray Allen saved him. The Heat had trailed by five with 28 seconds remaining to come all the way back. In overtime, a jumper from James got the lead at 101-100, and two free throws from Allen sealed it. The Heat would go on to win Game 7 in Miami 95-88, the second NBA Championship for the “Big Three”. It was redemption for James, then 2-2 in the Finals, as the four-game sweep from the Spurs in 2007 was now long gone.

In Miami, James found he didn’t have to do as much. That’s a relative term for a four-time MVP, but in four seasons with the Heat, James averaged below a 34 percent usage rate in the playoffs, below his career average three of those four years. A look at his game log true shooting and usage shows some impressively efficient performances through the Heat’s 20 game postseason in 2013. The 32/11/10 in Game 6 was his highest usage rate of the playoffs, and his team needed it.

TS% vs USG% Scatter (1)

Data from Basketball-Reference.com

What changed for James in Miami? For one, his shooting was even better. His three highest three-point shooting seasons (36.2, 40.6, 37.9) came with a 2-1 Finals record from 2012-2014.  Plus, the shooting talents of teammates like Bosh and Allen opened up a driving attack where James scored at 62.7 percent on 201 attempts in 2013.

In the 2014 playoffs, he had a career-high 66.8 true shooting percentage, but met his match against the Spurs in the Finals.  Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, and Danny Green would all shoot above that mark in the series, winning in five. By the end of 2014, LeBron would opt out and try to take his peak shooting back to Cleveland to try and redeem his losses in 2007 and 2009.

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Return

And now here is the challenge for LeBron James’s Legacy. In eleven years in the playoffs, he is 6-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, but 2-4 in the NBA Finals. After a 31-point victory in Game 1 against the Toronto Raptors, James is three wins away from another Eastern Conference Championship, an accomplishment that would pass Michael Jordan for Finals appearances. But for James, the Eastern Conference Finals is where that comparison ends. From 0-2 in his first two attempts at a championship for Cleveland and Miami trying to do it all, to 2-1 with the Miami Heat finally finding the right balanced roster of shooting and defense to win, and now 0-1 trying to finish what he first set out to accomplish in Cleveland. A Finals rematch with the 73-9 Golden State Warriors would make for a great story, but it remains to be seen if James and his team are up for the task. What happens next for James in these playoffs will likely define his legacy, either redemption and validation or greatness that was more often second best.

Look one more time at the boxplots from James’s playoff scoring in 2015 and 2016, and you’ll see the starting of something different. After a failed run at the NBA Championship in 2015, where a shorthanded LeBron James again found himself having to carry his team, he’s now finding help from a healthy and hot-handed set of shooters in Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and J.R. Smith. The wide range of scoring last year (15-45 points) has narrowed through eight games in this postseason in the low 20s. That ugly jumper James took in the United Center last year as the only option is still ugly at times, but he isn’t the only option anymore. At 31.6 on three-pointers, James is the second-worst three-point shooter on his team in the playoffs, but is opting to let others take a shot (and giving Smith a ultra-green light). His usage rate is below 30 percent, his true-shooting is 55.5 percent (below his average, but good), and his team is undefeated.

Points Box Plot by Year (1)

Data from Basketball-Reference.com

He has fallen from his efficiency in 2013 and 2014, but he’s finding ways to contribute in other parts of the game. After missing the would-be dagger three-pointer at the end of Game 4 in Atlanta, James fought for a jump ball and won the tip to help close out the win and sweep. Since his return to Cleveland, his Defensive Box Plus-Minus are the highest of his career (5.1 in 2015, 4.5 in 2016). Even against the Raptors on Tuesday, James was well aware of his advantages in the match up and declining shooting. He attacked the rim, going 11-of-12 from inside the circle, with just one attempt (a miss) from beyond 5 feet from the rim.

At 31, James is entering the second decade of his playoff career and the last leg of his NBA career. Six Finals in the past decade with James at it’s center, and a seventh appearance could soon be imminent. Cleveland again has an opportunity to witness LeBron James try to finish what he has tried to accomplish six times before, win a championship for Cleveland. At 0-6 in playoff runs for Cleveland and 2-4 for Miami, James hasn’t always been up for the task, but he’s never been afraid to take his shot. For as much as his game has changed, his team has changed, his mindset has changed, his ambition remains the same. Eleven years and counting with the NBA as his witness.


Daniel Rowell Hardwood Paroxysm

Daniel Rowell is an NBA illustrator and writer for Hardwood Paroxysm. He recently said, "Hi TT" to Tristan Thompson at the halftime of a Cleveland Cavaliers game and Tristan may or may not have looked back. Dan is still recovering at his home in Chicago.