Beating LeBron James in an Elimination Game Is Tough, but Not Impossible
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Though the underdog Pacers have given James and his Heat juggernaut a surprisingly even matchup, they are down 3-2 and dangerously close to elimination.
That deficit is particularly worrisome for Indy fans because LeBron so rarely loses when he has a chance to put an opposing squad away.
In his postseason career, James has a 17-7 record when his team has a chance to clinch a series. Just twice—in 2006 against the Detroit Pistons and in 2008 against the Boston Celtics—have his opponents managed to put LeBron away when he had a shot to eliminate them.
By looking at those few losses, we can see if there is a blueprint for the Pacers to follow to pull off the comeback and why the odds are so slim that they will succeed.
Detroit Pistons, 2006
This was LeBron's first playoff appearance, and the Cleveland Cavaliers certainly got him some experience; he averaged an absurd 46.5 minutes in his 13 playoff games.
That includes playing no fewer than 47 minutes in the Eastern Conference semis against the Pistons. LeBron didn't run out of gas from this workload, but the 22-year-old was still unable to carry Cleveland by himself.
James' fourth-seeded Cavs squandered a 3-2 lead to top-seeded Detroit, losing by two in Game 6 before mustering just 61 points in a Game 7 drubbing.
In those two defeats, James shot 19-of-44 from the field and dished out 3.5 assists per game. Detroit trusted its defense to limit LeBron's volume scoring enough and instead focused on limiting his teammates, forcing a young player to do too much.
That said, James is a four-time MVP now and not nearly so susceptible to that kind of strategy. The Pistons beat him when he was still developing, and they are still the only team to overcome a 3-2 deficit against LeBron.
New Jersey Nets, 2007
Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semis featured a lot of difficult shots by LeBron, whose efforts to dominate the offensive play led to a poor shooting performance.
That acrobatic layup was one of just five field goals James hit in the game. New Jersey held him to 20 points on 36 percent shooting as the Cavs lost 83-72.
Like Detroit before them and the Pacers now, the Nets were a staunch defensive bunch, and a mix of Richard Jefferson and post help was enough to contain James.
LeBron has bulked up quite a bit and developed a deadly post game since then, though. He is more difficult to man up against and is a more adept scorer; asking an All-NBA defender like Paul George to bottle him up is no longer a fair request.
Washington Wizards, 2008
Save for a missed buzzer-beater, LeBron could have ended the opening round of the 2008 playoffs in five games.
Though he was able to distribute seven assists in the loss to the Wizards, he did shoot just 8-of-21 in the process. Even so, when he is able to get to the line 18 times, it's very difficult to beat him.
So how did Washington stave off LeBron? Blame Cleveland's perimeter offense.
As James attacked the rim or created his own shots, Daniel Gibson was the only Cav to knock down multiple three-pointers. Miami has no such spacing issues offensively, so this close result is a moot example.
Boston Celtics, 2008
LeBron had an all-time performance in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis, putting up 45 points, six assists and five rebounds before ultimately succumbing to the Celtics.
This game serves as evidence against James trying to be his team's entire offense.
He was efficient enough with 14-of-29 shooting in the decisive contest, but the Celtics held the rest of the Cavs to just 47 points combined. Delonte West had 15 of those and was the only other Cleveland player in double figures.
The Pacers can't expect LeBron to try to carry so much of the offensive load anymore—not because he can't do it, but because he'll never need to in Miami.
James' teammates may be underperforming against the Pacers, but not nearly to this degree.
Since the Celtics knocked James out in 2008, he has taken his talents to South Beach and hasn't lost a series clincher of any great consequence.
The Heat were up 3-0 in the opening round when they dropped Game 4 in both the 2011 and 2012 playoffs. Philly and New York ended up beating them by a combined six points, only to both get knocked out in Game 5.
How will the Eastern Conference Finals end?
There is little to draw from these games; an elite team eased slightly off the gas against inferior opponents. Of note, however, is LeBron's four-assist output against the Knicks, another example of poor distribution undoing his squad.
If there is any key to containing James today, it's to limit how much he makes his teammates better.
Indy has held LeBron to five assists or fewer three times in this series, winning twice and losing when Dwyane Wade dished out eight of his own.
The Pacers do have the hard-nosed approach the Pistons and Celtics once used to take down LeBron, but he is a much better player with much better teammates. Indy has the ability and mentality to take one from Miami, but two is another story.
Nothing is impossible, but all signs point to James and the Heat moving on to the NBA Finals.
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