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Why It’s Nearly Impossible to Eliminate LeBron

The Cavs star won’t go down without a fight

AP Images
AP Images

LeBron James has scored 518 points in the 16 postseason games when he’s faced elimination, nine more points than the Warriors have as a team in the first five games of these Finals. He has the highest scoring average in elimination games of anyone who has played in at least five. Look, if anyone could convince you that “game” and “seven” are “two of the best words ever,” it’s LeBron.

His latest elimination game was a 43-minute carousel ride — a greatest hits performance from a superstar seemingly still in his prime. According to Game Score, a stat created by John Hollinger near the turn of the century that provides a rough assessment of an individual’s performance based on box score stats, Game 5 was LeBron’s fifth-best playoff performance ever: 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, three blocks, and maybe the best perimeter shooting performance of his entire season.

It had it all: the chase-down blocks, the no-no-yes 3-pointers, dunks in tight quarters. There were shades of LeBron versus Detroit in 2007, Orlando in 2009, Indiana in 2012: desperation, determination, calm. LeBron played more minutes Monday than he’s averaged in the playoffs since 2011, yet it might have been the most free-spirited performance he’s had in a pressure-packed situation as a Cavalier. The weight of the world wasn’t squarely on his shoulders; he worked alongside a transcendent offensive performance from Kyrie Irving, a running mate every bit his equal for the night.

It was same old LeBron, but different. The jab steps that used to besiege his offensive catalog are almost entirely gone — better at his age to expend energy in a downhill motion toward the rim than via quick twitches from a static position. Dunks are more feats of strength and endurance than carnivalesque leaping ability. LeBron’s transition to a power role with age has fundamentally shifted his priorities, and it’s become clearer and clearer in his style of play. But the thing about LeBron that is so easy to take for granted is how little style matters. He is still a monolith, and the results form a tableau that has remained remarkably consistent throughout the transformations LeBron has undergone.

Monday night was especially heartening if you remember what he looked like in last year’s Game 5 against the Warriors, almost a year ago to the day. He had a 40-point triple-double in that game, but you won’t be seeing it enshrined in any pantheon. Outside of Tristan Thompson, who was the only other productive Cavalier, LeBron’s supporting cast shot 30.5 percent from the field, including 2-for-12 in the second half. LeBron almost took as many shots with a hand in his face as Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green did in that game combined. There were no openings, but LeBron, for whatever it’s worth, still got it done.

LeBron averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists in last year’s Finals. He was the first player in Finals history to lead both teams in all three categories. He scored 215 of the Cavaliers’ 561 points in the Finals, second only to Michael Jordan in percentage of total team points in the Finals. He shot under 40 percent, though. It was six games of tortured genius. He was a sculptor deprived of his hammer and chisel, forced to use a jackhammer. For the Cavaliers to stand a chance last year, everything had to be obliterated, including any semblance of efficiency, of which LeBron had been the patron saint during his four seasons with the Heat. It was scary watching a player devolve as a way of adapting to the modern conditions of the game and then walk away with historic records all the same.

But James’s caveman Method acting in the Finals last year has left a lingering tick, and a question that has become more and more existential: If his jumper is lost at sea, how can he beat the greatest shooting team of all time? LeBron closed out last season by going 2-for-10 from behind the arc in the Game 6 finale. He’s made at least four 3-pointers in a game only seven times since then, and, strangely enough, it hasn’t mattered much: The Cavs’ record is 4–3 when he does.

But one of those wins came on Monday, and the Cavs will need to space the floor in as many ways as possible. Making his return tonight is Draymond Green, arguably the biggest foil of James’s career since Paul Pierce. The open lanes LeBron enjoyed in Game 5 will largely be closed off.

Looking back at James’s best playoff performances according to Game Score, there is a through line: In all of the games within the top five, and seven of the top 10, James shot 50 percent or better from the 3-point line. In 2011, LeBron overcame the Celtics in the playoffs for the first time during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals; he shot 5-for-7 from behind the arc, one of his greatest shooting performances in the playoffs. If the Cavaliers are going to get their Game 7, they’ll need old LeBron to relocate Old LeBron again. They’ll need another transformation.

But this is the thrill and joy of watching LeBron James in the postseason. The polyhedron that is his illustrious career has an indeterminate number of sides; we discover them as he does.