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Examining LeBron’s Bizarre History of Minor Playoff Injuries

James’s durability is the stuff of legend, yet he’s also gotten repeatedly banged up in critical playoff moments. Is there any commonality to these untimely ailments?

LeBron James with a cast on his hand Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James was a broken man by the end of the NBA Finals. He was exhausted after leading the league in minutes during both the regular season and postseason. His left eye was filled with blood as a result of Draymond Green clawing him in the face during Game 1 of the series. And after Game 4, James revealed that he’d been playing with a hand that was “pretty much … broken.” Apparently, he had punched a blackboard out of frustration following a series-opening 124-114 overtime loss, a contest in which his 51-point, eight-assist, eight-rebound masterpiece went wasted largely because of a controversial charge turned block call, a George Hill missed free throw, and a J.R. Smith brain fart for the ages.

However, many are skeptical of James’s hand injury, or at least the way he chose to tell the public about it. James managed to play three full basketball games after the injury occurred, showing little sign of damage. (Rewatching the games, he does seem a little hesitant finishing, but you’d imagine worse from a “pretty much … broken” hand.) Then, after the series was over, he appeared before media wearing a huge cast. Was LeBron just making an excuse for his drop-off in play as the series progressed? I mean, come on, would a guy with a broken hand give people dap with his broken hand?

Personally, I believe the story of James’s injury: I find it hard to fathom that, given the opportunity to make up a story about what happened, any player would choose a version as embarrassing as “I was so angry we lost that I broke my own hand in a fit of rage.” (Or, for that matter, that the Cavs would sanction a story that makes Smith look even dumber for forgetting the score in Game 1. It was the costliest mistake in basketball history!) After all, we’ve previously roasted Enes Kanter and Amar’e Stoudemire for self-inflicting injuries. And there was a slight competitive advantage to LeBron hiding the injury from the Warriors, as a team facing a player with a confirmed-to-be-broken hand would almost certainly defend that player so he could drive only in the direction of his broken hand.

LeBron’s injuries (or lack thereof) have long been one of the many things that divide his fans from his haters. James has missed a lower percentage of career games to injury than every star except John Stockton and Karl Malone in NBA history. He’s never suffered a season-ending injury, typically playing deep into May and June. The only time he has missed extended time since entering the league came in 2015, when he took two weeks off to rest and rehab nagging knee and back issues. (The Cavs went 1-7 while he was gone, which explains why he so rarely skips games.)

But while James never misses games, he is perpetually hurt. Two years ago, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst cited six injuries LeBron had at the beginning of the 2015 playoffs, even though James was listed as healthy. And we’ve often seen James fall to the ground in intense pain. He writhes long enough to evoke fear that we’ve just witnessed the last act of the greatest player of his era. Then, within minutes, he’s fine. During the Finals, he twisted his ankle in a way ankles absolutely should not twist—and then just kept on going. A YouTuber has compiled a roundup of LeBron’s greatest noninjuries, calling them “emotional” wounds:

Normally, when athletes try to play through injuries, fans view it as the ultimate display of toughness. Hockey fans love to brag about how the sport’s players keep playing through broken bones, torn muscles, and knocked-out teeth. NBA lore celebrates Willis Reed for making it onto the floor in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals despite having a leg injury; one of Michael Jordan’s most legendary moments is his Flu Game. (The prize for toughing out an injury goes to former Bears cornerback Virgil Livers, who continued playing in a 1976 game despite his testicle exploding.) But when an athlete’s reaction to an injury surpasses the actual effect of the injury, it feels less like toughness and more like showmanship. We don’t praise Paul Pierce for being carted out of a Finals game in a wheelchair and giddily skipping back onto the floor minutes later; we mock him for it.

This divide is especially apparent when it comes to LeBron. His statistically historic ability to avoid injury is coupled with an anecdotally historic ability to play unbothered just moments after experiencing massive amounts of pain. Let’s revisit three noteworthy James injury cases—or, as some firmly believe, James-acting-injured cases—and examine what they tell us about how we view the best player of his generation.

The Cramping Incidents

Cramps are the perfect ailment for an injury skeptic. Unlike other injuries, they aren’t triggered by awkward falls or violent contact. Instead, a healthy player just suddenly stops being able to move as usual. James has been plagued by cramps at several key points in his career.

LeBron’s first prominent cramping incident came after Game 1 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals. He scored 49 points on just 30 shots in a tightly contested matchup with the Magic, but the Cavs lost 107-106, thanks to combined 10-of-32 shooting by Delonte West and Mo Williams. (The more things change, the more things stay the same. Except the part about the Magic being good—that’s definitely changed.) James seemed fine during the game, then collapsed on the court immediately after the final buzzer. Even back then, people questioned if he was “trying to draw attention to his injury as a way to explain the unexpected loss.”) For his part, James used the opportunity to say he should have consumed more VitaminWater, a product that he sponsored at the time.

And then there was the Cramp Game in the 2012 Finals. In the fourth quarter of the Heat’s Game 4 against the Thunder, LeBron crumpled to the floor in pain. Juwan Howard needed to literally carry James off the court—an image that still gets passed around whenever people mock LeBron. James shouted “AHHHHH SHIT” while being tended to on the sideline, language that memorably snuck past ABC’s censors. He reentered the game about a minute later and drilled the go-ahead 3-pointer:

Even though James played through the injury to help Miami win 104-98, NHL players openly mocked his pain on Twitter.

And then there was the other Cramp Game, in Game 1 of the 2014 Finals. The air conditioning was broken in San Antonio’s arena, and James came off the floor with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. He tried to play through his cramps, returning for 30 seconds before experiencing so much pain that he couldn’t make it down the floor. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra later claimed that James kept asking to return to the game, but said he wouldn’t allow it. LeBron first exited with the Heat up 86-84; they went on to lose by 15 points.

James’s most recent major cramping incident came in the first round of this year’s playoffs, during a 105-101 win over the Pacers in Game 7. Cameras caught him telling teammates before the game that he planned to play all 48 minutes. He needed to be taken out of the game late in the third quarter, though, eventually returning to the bench to eat orange slices.

The Lefty Free Throws

LeBron seemed fine for most of the Cavaliers’ 2010 first-round playoff series against the Bulls, up until Cleveland was mere seconds away from winning Game 5 and advancing. Then James began to show signs that his right elbow was causing him considerable pain, opting to take a free throw left-handed and missing badly:

Luckily, the Cavs were up four points at the time—just enough that the missed free throw attempt didn’t matter. “If I had to make it, I’d have tried it with my right hand,” James said. With the series won, James went on to reveal that the elbow had been bothering him for weeks—but when the team ran X-rays and MRIs on the joint, nothing was wrong. James wore an elbow sleeve for the team’s subsequent series against the Celtics, but said the elbow wasn’t bothering him.

To this day, James is still bashed for his performance in that Celtics series, his final one with Cleveland before The Decision. While many criticized LeBron’s mental toughness in the aftermath of that loss, he later claimed that his earlier elbow injury had “lingered throughout the playoffs” and prevented him from playing his best against Boston. Last offseason James again claimed his right elbow was bothering him, but said the injury was “so different” from what he experienced in 2010.

Whatever Happened to LeBron in Game 7

Someday, we will look back on the 2016 NBA Finals as one of the greatest moments in basketball history—the time that an all-time great player led his squad back from a 3-1 series deficit against an all-time great opponent, sealing his triumph with an iconic block. What will likely be forgotten is that James spent about 90 seconds during the most heroic moment of his career writhing on the ground in pain, with his entire team and training staff surrounding him:

James was ultimately fine—he got up, nailed two free throws, and sailed into Finals history.

*****

So what can we learn from LeBron’s history of bizarre playoff ailments? Here are some common threads:

It can be hard to tell exactly when LeBron gets injured.

LeBron often gets hurt in critically important playoff games. Often, he gets hurt right after a critically important game has been sealed.

James tends to downplay injuries when asked about them, but might retroactively reveal that something was bothering him.

Some of these commonalities can be explained logically—of course it’s natural for a guy who plays seemingly infinite minutes to cramp up toward the end of playoff games, and of course he shouldn’t admit he’s injured while the other team can use that info to their competitive advantage. Other commonalities lay the groundwork for conspiracy theorists: Doesn’t it seem like James has a flair for the dramatic? Why are there so many phantom injuries that James retroactively admits were bad?

As with all things LeBron James, there is a vast chasm in how his injuries are viewed. His supporters already see him as superhuman, and the vast array of injuries that haven’t slowed him in key moments only enhances that belief. But to some, James’s tendency of popping up from seemingly grievous injuries amounts to another demerit against a player derided for seeking attention.

The reality probably rests somewhere in between these two mortally opposed viewpoints. I believe that James regularly plays through enough pain to make a normal human faint. I also believe that James understands the value in occasionally using injuries in his favor. Embellishing the story of an injury doesn’t hurt anybody. At the very least, it doesn’t hurt LeBron more than he is already hurting.