LeBron James had been sensational in this year’s NBA Playoffs. Through the first two rounds, he averaged 34 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists per game with a true shooting percentage of 62.5 percent. LeBron’s Playoff Box Plus-Minus of 16.2 was so far ahead of anyone else that the only close comparison is to himself in 2008-09, when he had a BPM of 18.2 in the playoffs.
And then Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals happened.
To visualize LeBron’s performance in the playoffs, I have used Kevin Ferrigan’s DRE, a box-score based single-game metric to estimate a player’s overall impact. Lots of plays do not show up in the box score, but overall it does a fairly good job of capturing single-game performance.
The graph above shows the DRE score for the individual Cavaliers in the last four years of playoffs and LeBron is highlighted. The light turquoise lines are meant to put the DRE score into context — showing the percentile benchmarks from all games played in the 2017-18 regular season. That means that if a DRE score is above the 50th percentile it was comparable to the better half of games played. If a DRE score is above the 75th percentile it was comparable to the better quarter of games played and so forth.
The graph is pretty information dense, but it does also tell a lot of the stories that we know of.
First of all, Game 1 on Sunday was one the worst performances in LeBron’s recent playoff career. In terms of DRE, it was only “surpassed” by last year’s Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals (also against Boston), where LeBron only scored 11 points. Cleveland lost that game, but won the series in five.
Second, LeBron has been exceptional in Cleveland’s last two playoff runs. While he was still very good in 2014-15, his play, especially before the Finals, was not at the standards we’re used to.
Third, we can see that while LeBron was stellar in the first round this year, he had very little help — the rest of the Cavaliers roster did not really have any great games. When they decided to show up in the second round, the team also performed much better and the Raptors got swept. In Game 1, none of the players on the Cavaliers had a stellar game and it was a blowout.
Returning to LeBron, we can take a look at his complete playoff history:
Overall, LeBron has simply just had so many great games in the playoffs. It is pretty wild to see. His performances in the last few seasons have been closer to what he did pre-Miami than in South Beach. That is not to say that he played badly with the Heat, far from it. But in terms of raw output he has had better games with the Cavaliers.
The few times LeBron has strung together several bad games are quite well known — it is the 2007 Finals, the infamous Eastern Conference Semifinals against Boston in 2010, and the 2011 Finals. But the graph also suggests that in recent history, he has not had several bad games in a series and the Celtics certainly shouldn’t be counting on that.