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LeBron James: The Clutch Gene and Another Championship Quest with the Miami Heat

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LeBron James: The Clutch Gene and Another Championship Quest with the Miami Heat
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
LeBron James and the Miami Heat have taken flight as they pursue back-to-back NBA titles.

The divide in sports in the year 2012 is between those who measure everything by statistics and those who are more inclined to side with the, "eye test." Prior to the 2012 NBA Finals, many believed that LeBron James lacked the killer instinct and cold-blooded assassin tendencies of a player like Kobe Bryant or the great Michael Jordan.

The King proved the skeptics and naysayers wrong repeatedly throughout Miami's title run and earned his first NBA championship. Unlike the NFL, in the NBA, one ring simply doesn't cut it when considering some of the all-time greatest players. The best of all time are measured by how much bling they compiled over their career.

The statistics have always reflected that LeBron James more often than not performs well in the clutch. Yet until last season, what the statistics could not show you or describe was why James, in some instances, appeared so deferential in big moments in games.

For James, it wasn't always a matter of passing off big play responsibilities to another elite star, Dwyane Wade, sometimes it was simply deferring to one of Miami's role players. Passing to the next man, the next rotation over.

What no one will deny now is James' big game pedigree and his ability to come through with the game on the line. He has exceptional aggregate statistics in the Playoffs over the course of his career. James is averaging 28.5 points per game (ppg), 8.7 rebounds per game (rpg) and 6.7 assists per game (apg) on 47 percent shooting in 115 career playoff games.

LeBron's per game averages, with the exception of assists, are marginally better in the postseason than in the regular season. His career regular season shooting percentage is 48 percent.

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However, what is the league's reigning MVP stumbles next May in the Playoffs, will the perception linger with LeBron James, that he lacks the late-game fortitude that other great players possessed?It's certainly a perception that another one of sport's all-time greats fights.

Alex Rodriguez.

Rodriguez had one of the greatest baseball postseasons in history in 2009 but in most other years, the Yankees third baseman has been rather pedestrian in big moments. While baseball and basketball are two different games entirely, James was noticeably lacking in the clutch in several moments during the 2011 NBA Finals.

What satiated the appetite of so many fans and pleased so many NBA purists was watching James take apart the Thunder piece-by-piece in last year's NBA Finals with surgical precision. There, James finally appeared as cold-blooded as great game closers such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and LeBron's contemporary, Kobe Bryant.

Here is what the statistics can show you: During the 2011 NBA Playoffs, in the fourth quarter or overtime with less than three minutes on the clock, while the Heat were winning by as many as five points or trailing by as many as five points, LeBron James attempted 30 shots and made 12, good for 40 percent from the field. 

During the 2012 NBA Playoffs, James was a 44 percent shooter under the same criteria. That may seem like a very small difference but James was much more efficient in the aggregate in 2012, taking less shots and making more of the ones that he took. 

He was also by far a better all-around player, controlling the game more by increasing his rebounding production.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
LeBron James finally got his long coveted ring in 2012.

James turned in one of the epic performances in NBA Playoffs history last season in Game 4 of the Heat's series against Indiana. "The King" poured in 40 points, snared 18 boards and dished out 9 assists, on 52 percent shooting; a line that would make all-time greats like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan blush.

James dominated, at times throughout the 2012 Playoffs, proving why he's the league's best player. Yet, with less than one minute to go in Game 2 of that same series against Indiana, LeBron came to the free throw line for two shots with Miami down by one point. He missed both free throws and Miami went on to lose the game.

Nerves?

Well, that belief is in the mind of the beholder. Prior to those two free throws LeBron had shot 8-11 from the charity stripe for the game. For his career, LeBron's free throw percentage is virtually identical in the regular season and the Playoffs. Just a small sample size of one game but food for thought, nonetheless.

What the statistics cannot show as definitively is a player's aversion to taking a shot in big moments. That is something for the pundits and fans to discuss and is more subject to the,"eye test." LeBron's hesitance to shoot in the clutch came under fire during the 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas.

James only averaged 17.8 ppg in the 2011 Finals and repeatedly passed up big shots. This further perpetuated the sport public's curiosity on whether there really is a "clutch" gene or if some players simply rise to the occasion better in big moments than others, for reasons beyond our ability to quantify.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
The 2011 NBA Finals may end up being James' nadir as a pro.

Close to defeat, James rose to his feet in 2012 and averaged 28.6 ppg in the NBA Finals, overwhelming the Thunder and showing why he's the best in the world. James already had won several MVP's but now had the ring to prove that he truly is the best.

That's just the way it works in American professional sports.

LeBron James holds three MVP awards, to be precise, and has shown no signs of slowing down or losing the title of, top player in the league. But LeBron knows that he will be judged by how many championships he wins. One is great. But Jordan won six. Magic won five.

Maybe for now, we should all just be content watching a man in the prime of his career who some day may be one of the very greatest players to live. Sure, he has his work cut out for him to win several more championships.

Basketball fans know it's fun to just watch and admire the best in the world as he continues yet another championship quest.

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