5 Reasons LeBron James' Clutch Performance Is No Longer an Issue
LeBron James certainly could have—and perhaps should have—left it alone.
It was late in the March 2, 2012 night, in the cool Salt Lake City air, and the noise was deafening.
James had just explained, quite logically why, at the conclusion of a virtuoso performance, he had passed on a shot just before the buzzer, seeing the double-team coming and sending a perfect back-handed bounce pass to a remarkably open Udonis Haslem.
Haslem had shot a wayward jumper.
The Heat had lost.
The Twitterverse had stirred.
After all, this came during the same week that James, after rampaging the East All-Star team back into range, had passed on a last-second attempt, instead committing a turnover in Dwyane Wade's general direction.
At his locker, James said something similar to what he had always said when the critics chirped about his late-game decisions, that "I was just trying to make the right plays and do what it takes to win games," and that he believed Haslem had the better look.
That all sounded reasonable enough but, then, after boarding the bus headed for the airport, James tweeted this:
“Man I have a sick feeling in my stomach right now! Really wanted tonight's game. I just had to make one more dang play out there.”
And, finally: “A stop, rebound, a shot, assist, a block, whatever it took. I fell short again!”
More than 10 months after that unnecessary appeasement of his critics, James has returned to Utah, to play the Jazz again on Monday night.
And much has changed.
(All quotes for this piece were collected as a result of the author's daily coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics were accurate as of Sunday afternoon.)
5. The Annihilation of Indiana
Back in May, Dwyane Wade needed a lot of help from his friends.
Wade's knee was achy, his confidence was shaky and his relationship with Erik Spoelstra seemed to be breaking, after Wade publicly cursed out the curse on the sidelines in Game 3 of the Heat's second-round series with the physical Indiana Pacers.
Wade downplayed the incident afterward, saying that he didn't "know what y'all are talking about," but his teammates sure did, especially LeBron James.
And while James didn't make any game-winning shots in the series, he made plays that certainly qualified as "clutch" under the circumstances. It started with the way that he shook off the Pacers' attempts to get him off his emotional and mental equilibrium, from Danny Granger's pushing to Lance Stephenson's choke signs.
“I’m not no monster," James said of Granger. "This ain’t no horror movie. I’m not trying to scare nobody. I’m trying to play basketball. He’s got to hype himself up to say he's not scared of me. Have I ever been intimidated by anybody in this league? I don't think so. I go out and play my game and let my game do the talking."
So he would, producing arguably the most dominant performance of his decorated career, with 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. Just as importantly, he made sure to get Wade going, finding his sidekick with slick passes in space.
From there, Wade and James—with the injured Chris Bosh—absolutely obliterated the Pacers, winning the final three games by a combined 52 points.
James didn't need to beat any buzzers.
But the beatdown he delivered, when his team needed him, couldn't reasonably be called anything other than clutch.
4. The Beatdown of Boston
LeBron James was one series away from playing for the championship.
In his mind, it would have been wrong, at that point, to play against anybody else.
It had to be the Boston Celtics.
"I wouldn’t have it no other way, personally," James said. "This is really the only team I’m accustomed to playing in the playoffs. No matter where I go, I find a way to play Boston."
Sometimes, he had found himself a loser, notably in his final series with Cleveland when many charged him with quitting on the Cavaliers' cause. Now, in 2012 with the Heat, James was on the brink again, his team struggling to compensate for the limitations of the still-recovering Chris Bosh, and down 3-2 in the series.
Now, he had to beat back the Celtics, as well as rowdy spectators, in Boston.
Prior to the game, he read the book Mockingjay, not smiling at anyone. On the court, he was even more serious. Connecting from virtually everywhere on the court, he made 19 of 26 shots, which was one more make than the rest of his team combined.
“He was locked in from the beginning of the game, like I’ve never seen him before,” Dwyane Wade said.
“What fuels him is the moment,” Spoelstra said. “And the moment will define him.”
This moment? It was clutch.
“I now hope you guys can stop talking about LeBron, that he doesn’t play (well) in big games,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, shaking his head. “He was pretty good tonight.”
3. The MVP Against OKC
Everything that LeBron James had done in the 2012 East playoffs, against New York and Indiana and Boston, didn't mean much once the calendar turned to June.
After all, James had frequently been brilliant in the 2011 East playoffs, playing the pivotal role in closing out Boston and Chicago, and even doing the latter with limited assistance from an unsteady Wade.
Then came the NBA Finals against Dallas.
As that series progressed, James became less assertive and much less effective, averaging only 17.8 points and not impacting the rest of the game in anywhere close to the way he had all season. That, of course, fueled the chatter about how he chokes.
So, granted another chance, James needed to shine against Oklahoma City from the start of the 2012 NBA Finals. He needed to demonstrate that he could close the deal, that his improved outlook—focusing on the love for basketball rather than shutting up the "haters"—had made some difference.
Did he ever.
He played more in the post on offense, creating opportunities for himself and teammates. He defended Kevin Durant about as well as anyone can, and at times he defended others. He made an overabundance of significant plays, on both ends, in all sorts of situations. He shot roughly the same percentage as in the previous NBA Finals, but he simply did more of everything, and did it harder.
He finished with averages of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists.
He finished by clutching the Larry O'Brien championship trophy and the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy, something you can't do if you're not clutch.
2. Even Better Options Around Him
James has never stopped speaking about making the right play—which, in his view, is finding the open shooter above all else.
This is what he was taught as a kid, and this is what he shares with anyone who asks, deviating only in times of extreme stress and scrutiny, as was the case after that aforementioned loss in Utah.
The funny thing about the right play is that it seems like the right play to more people if it gets the right result.
The Heat have played plenty of close games this season, including some against teams their talent suggests they should dominate. And while there have been cases when James has tried to take over with his scoring—see the next slide—the reality is that he's been just as prone to pass as ever.
He's just passing to a better shooter than in recent years.
He's often passing, for instance, to all-time three-point shooter Ray Allen.
Against Denver, James drew a second defender, Corey Brewer, with a drive, then found Allen in the left corner for a game-winning four-point play.
Against Cleveland, James curled into the lane, causing the Cavaliers to scramble on his catch, then hit Allen on the right wing for a game-winning three-pointer.
Against the shorthanded San Antonio Spurs, James dribbled into the lane, lost the ball, regained it, lost it, looked the other way, then somehow hit Allen on the left wing.
Allen hit another game-winning three.
And that was all in November.
Does any of this make James more clutch than he was, because he's assisted on an elite shooter's splashes?
Perhaps not. But maybe he was more clutch than many believed.
1. A Continuation in Houston...and Elsewhere
This may just be about context.
With Wade resting, James scored the Heat's final 17 points to stun the then-New Jersey Nets in April. That, however, was before James and the Heat had closed the championship deal.
And so many brushed it off as a meaningless regular-season effort.
Now that James has won, his late-game heroics aren't as easily dismissed. He has had several exceptional fourth quarters this season, saving the Heat's skin in Phoenix, in Atlanta, in Orlando, against Denver and so on.
His most notable explosion started even earlier when, sensing that his team needed his offense, and coming off a loss in Memphis, he scored 32 points on the second night of a back-to-back. He did by doing what defenses dare him to do, drilling long jumper after long jumper.
For years, though, his critics have attacked his late-game play by saying that he settles too much for outside shots. Not on this November night.
"Attack," he said later.
With Miami still down one, he rejected screens by Chris Bosh and Wade and darted by Carlos Delfino on the baseline for a layup. That put the Heat ahead. Miami stayed that way after James defended James Harden on the other end.
“How did anybody ever question him?” Erik Spoelstra said. “I mean, looking back on it now, in big moments. This guy is the ultimate competitor. He gets absolutely amplified in these situations, and you could see him coming to life. He’s done it over and over again.”
And so, maybe now, at last, the narrative is done.