Ranking LeBron James' Performances in Conference Finals
After LeBron James eliminated the Chicago Bulls in what he called one of the most challenging closeout games of his 10-year career, reporters asked when he would begin preparing for the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Miami Heat forward, clearly exhausted, offered an honest answer:
“I need at least 24 hours after going against those guys."
His opponent will need much more time than that to get sufficiently ready for him.
James has had his best season as a pro, and this time of year, typically, is when he is at his best.
He has been in four Eastern Conference Finals during the previous nine postseasons against four different teams, none of which he will face this time around.
He has won three of them, including both with the Heat.
And in the one loss—in 2009 with the Cleveland Cavaliers—he was hardly the problem.
Before looking ahead, here's a look back.
All quotes in this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post.
4. Closing Out the Bulls in Chicago (2011)
LeBron James had won two straight NBA MVP awards when he signed with the Miami Heat during the summer of 2010.
The odds were always against him pulling a three-peat.
James rubbed much of the public and media the wrong way with the handling of his free-agency move, announcing it through "The Decision" television special. While he was exceptional for much of the 2010-11 season, voters looked for a fresher face who appeared to do more with less.
That was Derrick Rose, whose Bulls actually had the higher seed, the home-court advantage and a 1-0 series lead in the matchup with James and the Heat during the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals.
James scored 29 to steal Game 2, and after Chris Bosh carried the Heat in Game 3, James scored 35 in Game 4.
In Game 5, it appeared the series would head back in Miami for a sixth game, with the Heat trailing by 10 points early in the fourth quarter. Then James, with help from a previously struggling Dwyane Wade, rampaged to the finish.
He scored 12 points in the quarter, all while repeatedly frustrating Rose on the other end, so much so that Rose essentially acknowledged there was nothing he could do against someone so tall, so strong and so quick.
"Man, that was maybe the best three minutes of my life," James said at the time.
His final averages for the series:
25.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.8 blocks per game.
And still, fourth out of four on this list.
3. Dismantling the Detroit Pistons (2007)
This is how it has worked for years in the Eastern Conference:
Young, emerging teams must scale the veteran squads that stand in their way.
Just as Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls had to get past the Detroit Pistons, LeBron James confronted another tough-minded, time-tested, ring-wearing Detroit squad.
In the spring of 2006, the Pistons eliminated James' Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games in the conference semifinals.
They were in decent position to end Cleveland's season again using home-court advantage during the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals.
The series stood tied at 2-2, with Game 5 tied at 70 entering the fourth quarter in Auburn Hills.
The Pistons had the far more balanced team.
The Cavaliers had James, though, and he wouldn't let them lose.
For the game's final 12 minutes and 17 seconds, including two overtimes, James scored all 25 of Cleveland's points, in every way imaginable, including a driving layup with 2.2 seconds left for the 109-107 victory.
He shot just 3-of-11 in Game 6, but Cleveland advanced anyway.
The overall series averages:
25.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 2.7 steals per game on 44.9 percent shooting.
Good for third on this list, almost exclusively due to Game 5.
2. Outstanding Against, but Ousted By, the Orlando Magic (2009)
The record, as it turned out, was misleading.
The Cleveland Cavaliers won 66 games during the 2008-09 season, which led many observers to believe that they had finally surrounded LeBron James with championship pieces.
Instead, the supporting cast fell to pieces under the Eastern Conference Finals spotlight.
The first game of the series against the Orlando Magic was a clue of what was to come.
James scored 49 points on 20-of-30 shooting.
The series would eventually extend to six games.
But while Mo Williams averaged 18.3 points, he faltered when it most mattered, and his overall efficiency (37.1 percent from the field) slipped significantly from the regular season.
Even with Jameer Nelson injured, Orlando's superstar, Dwight Howard, could turn to others for assistance, especially Rashard Lewis or Hedo Turkoglu.
James often appeared alone.
In Game 6, he was not at his best, scoring 25 points but missing too often from the field and from the line. His teammates couldn't overcome it. Orlando advanced, ultimately losing in the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers, as NBA nation lamented the loss of a James versus Kobe Bryant showdown.
And so, in history, what he accomplished over the course of that series has been overlooked.
The incredible averages:
38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game, all while shooting 48.7 percent.
1. Blitzing the Celtics in Boston (2012)
As his career progressed, LeBron James encountered a new nemesis.
The Detroit Pistons declined.
The Boston Celtics emerged.
James came to consider them his fiercest rival, and that didn't change when he helped eliminate them in five games during the second round of 2011.
In 2012, the Celtics were underdogs, but the Miami Heat were without Chris Bosh for the start of the series and down 3-2 entering Game 6. Their coach, Erik Spoelstra, was on the hot seat. James faced another long summer where he'd have to dwell on his championship drought.
So he put on his most focused face.
And he obliterated Boston.
By the time he was done, doused with beer by frustrated fans, he had scored 45 of the Heat's 98 points by accounting for 19 of their 37 field goals. He did it by splashing jumper after jumper, regardless of the defender. He did it while also grabbing 15 rebounds, more than any two Celtics combined.
James contributed 31 points and 12 rebounds in Game 7, in much more favorable circumstances, with the home crowd behind him.
But it was the previous game, in the belly of Beantown, which contributed more to his legend than any game before.
In that sense, the series averages don't matter much, but they were hardly awful:
33.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game.
Final Analysis: Expect His Best of the Playoffs
It has seemed, at times, that LeBron James has been holding something back.
For anyone else, his 2013 playoff numbers are beyond comprehension or aspiration, with averages of 24.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game on 51.8 percent shooting.
Yet only the assists are equivalent with what he produced in the regular season.
The Miami Heat have gone 8-1 anyway against the overmatched Milwaukee Bucks and the battered Chicago Bulls.
The competition will stiffen from here, and James will be challenged, especially against Paul George in the next round and either Kawhi Leonard or Tayshaun Price in the NBA Finals.
Still, there's plenty of history to suggest that, in the conference finals at least, he will be better too.
And for all the talk of the Bulls' ravaged roster, Jimmy Butler had a defense-first mindset with quick feet and hands.
"We get an opportunity to regroup," James said after beating the Bulls.
He gets an opponent to recharge.
Pity the players in his way.
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