Ranking LeBron James' Most Memorable Scoring Performances
LeBron James warned us this was coming.
We wrote off his words as fantasy, but they should have been filed under the "foreshadowing" category.
Back in November, James was asked about some of the gaudy shot-attempt numbers he sees around the league and what he might do if given that type of opportunity.
"If you give me 37 shots in a game, I’d have 60 ... 70," he said, via ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh, setting off a series of laughs from the crowd of reporters around him. "“I had [almost] 40 now with 18 shots, I mean ... If you give me 37 shots in a game, I’d put up 60. Easy."
James, it turns out, was selling himself short. He needed just 33 shots to post a career-high (and Miami Heat franchise-record) 61 points during Miami's 124-107 win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday.
We don't typically think of the four-time MVP as a scorer. His game is too well rounded to place him inside a box as rigid as that.
He's so many different things on the hardwood—creator, finisher, stopper—but scorer is absolutely one of his roles. He does have a scoring title under his belt (30.0 points per game in 2007-08) along with the third-highest career scoring average in league history (27.6), after all.
Spurred by this latest scoreboard barrage, that got us thinking about the best scoring performances of his career. Was this performance the finest of the King's crown jewels?
*Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
**Rankings determined by the "offensive game score," a simplified version of the game score metric created by current Memphis Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations and former ESPN analyst John Hollinger. The formula used to calculate offensive game score is points + (0.4 * field-goals) + (-0.7 * field-goal attempts) + ((free-throw attempts - free throws) * -0.4).
May 31, 2007
The Stats: 48 PTS, 18-33 FG, 2-3 3PT, 10-14 FT, 9 REB, 7 AST
The Offensive Game Score: 30.5
The Story: James had already been the talk of the hoops world for some time, but this was the game that transformed him from man to myth.
It was Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, a series that pitted James' young Cleveland Cavaliers against the battle-scarred Detroit Pistons. It was the fifth of six consecutive conference finals appearances for the Pistons, the first since 1992 for the Cavaliers.
Nothing short of a superhero could have saved Cleveland, and that's exactly the role King James played.
He scored the Cavs final 25 points, and 29 of their last 30, including the game-winning layup with 2.2 seconds left in the second overtime period.
"He did it all," Cavs coach Mike Brown said after the game, via Greg Boeck of USA Today. "He didn't quit. I don't know what he can't do. Wow."
Little did we know then that James was only getting started.
March 5, 2008
The Stats: 50 PTS, 16-30 FG, 7-13 3PT, 11-16 FT, 10 AST, 8 REB
The Offensive Game Score: 33.4
The Story: He's unselfish even when his scoring total would suggest otherwise.
Always efficient, he got a big boost out of his still developing three-point shot (he hit just 31.5 percent of his long-range attempts that season). Perhaps a microcosm of his days with the Cavs, James reached double-digit assists despite getting double-digit scoring efforts out of only three teammates: Damon Jones, Devin Brown and Delonte West.
It didn't matter who shared the floor with him. Once his threes started dropping, the Knicks had no answers for him.
"When he makes them like that, he's virtually unguardable because he's big, he's strong, he's fast and he's unselfish," then-Knicks coach Isiah Thomas said, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
May 20, 2009
The Stats: 49 PTS, 20-30 FG, 3-6 3PT, 6-10 FT, 8 AST, 6 REB
The Offensive Game Score: 34.4
The Story: James' Cavaliers were back in the Eastern Conference Finals and once again in need of a miracle.
After dropping the series-opener on their home floor, Cleveland managed to squander a 23-point first-half advantage. Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu seemed to cap the comeback with a 12-footer that gave the Magic a 95-93 lead with just one second left on the clock.
Nothing about the narrative boded well for Cleveland's chances. The Cavs didn't land knockout blows; they ate them on the chin (see: Michael Jordan's dagger over Craig Ehlo). James didn't rise to the challenge; he wilted underneath it.
The story changed that night.
James caught the inbounds pass from Mo Williams at the top of the key with his momentum carrying him away from the basket. James planted his feet, fired over Turkoglu's outstretched arms and buried the game-winner as the buzzer sounded.
February 4, 2009
The Stats: 52 PTS, 17-33 FG, 2-7 3PT, 16-19 FT, 11 AST, 9 REB
The Offensive Game Score: 34.5
The Story: History was almost made that night.
According to the official scorer inside Madison Square Garden, it was made. James, initially, became the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975 to have a triple-double in a 50-point game.
Upon video review, though, the league determined one of his credited rebounds should have gone to Ben Wallace, leaving James with just a run-of-the-mill 52-point, 11-assist, nine-rebound stat line.
"You guys seen every phase of my game tonight, the scoring, the rebounding, the assists and defensively just trying to attack the opposing team," James said after the game, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
We also saw one of his finest scoring performances to date, bolstered by a blistering 20-point first quarter. I suppose that's enough to make up for the history we lost.
January 15, 2008
The Stats: 51 PTS, 18-28 FG, 6-12 3PT, 9-16 FT, 9 AST, 8 REB
The Offensive Game Score: 35.8
The Story: Before James was hoisting championship banners with Mike Miller, he was bullying him—and the rest of the Memphis Grizzlies—for 51 points in a marathon 132-124 Cavs overtime win.
He could have taught the sharpshooting Miller a thing or two about taking aim that night. The 50 percent success rate beyond the arc is impressive, but look what he did inside of it: 12 of 16.
He had nine points and an assist during the extra session, and his ability to find his own shot or create one for his teammates caught Memphis coach Marc Iavaroni's eye.
"I think he's got more passing ability than Magic [Johnson] because he can put it on a dime and with zip," the coach said, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "It's a function of his ability to score. He allows people to get free."
It's the double-edged sword of defending James, one that's still causing casualties to this day.
December 30, 2009
The Stats: 48 PTS, 15-23 FG, 4-6 3PT, 14-16 FT, 10 REB, 6 AST
The Offensive Game Score: 37.1
The Story: James brought in his 25th birthday in style, bashing the Atlanta Hawks for a wildly efficient 48 points during Cleveland's 106-101 win at Quicken Loans Arena.
James was pulling out tricks some didn't even know he had in his bag. Over his first six seasons, he was just a 32.8 percent shooter from deep and a 73.8 percent shooter at the foul line.
None of that mattered, nor did the fact he didn't have a single teammate top 14 points (Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao had 14 each).
Was it simply some birthday magic for the King? It sure seemed that way when Varejao connected on a critical crunch-time triple.
"That's a great gift," James said, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "I had Andy in the gift exchange and so he paid me back. That's what friends are for."
March 20, 2005
The Stats: 56 PTS, 18-36 FG, 6-12 3PT, 14-15 FT, 10 REB, 8 AST
The Offensive Game Score: 37.6
The Story: Before his most recent explosion, this stood as a personal standard for nearly nine full seasons.
On that night, the then-20-year-old James became the youngest player in league history with a 50-point game (a record later broken by current Detroit Pistons guard Brandon Jennings). And he couldn't have cared less.
"I probably played the best game of my life but it means nothing when it comes with a loss," he said, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
To make matters worse, he even had a secondary scorer to help carry the load (Drew Gooden, 24 points). The problem was finding other contributors beyond those two. Starting point guard Eric Snow saw 40 scoreless minutes of action. Cleveland's bench managed a single point during its 40 minutes of work.
Despite James' record-breaking night, the Cavs dropped a crushing 105-98 loss to the Toronto Raptors.
February 20, 2009
The Stats: 55 PTS, 16-29 FG, 8-11 3PT, 15-22 FT, 9 AST, 5 REB
The Offensive Game Score: 38.3
The Story: This was when the idea of forcing James to beat you from distance started losing its luster.
The body of work is impressive on its own: 55.2 percent shooting from the field, 72.7 percent from distance. What makes this game really pop, though, is his masterpiece inside the masterpiece.
From the final 22 seconds of the first half through the first 2:50 of the second, James went on a tear that seemed superhuman at the time and feels comical looking back now. He scored 22 points in that three-plus minute stretch, hitting all eight of his shots, including six triples—most of which were "heat check" distance.
Fans had to pinch themselves to make sure it was real. Cavs coach Mike Brown had to bite his tongue and fight against his instincts.
"Inside at first, you want to say, 'No,' and then it goes in," Brown said, via Damon Sims of The Plain Dealer. "I just had to coach myself; I just had to sit down and be quiet and watch the show like everybody else."
That show has been a must-see ever since.
February 3, 2011
The Stats: 51 PTS, 17-25 FG, 3-5 3PT, 14-17 FT, 11 REB, 8 AST
The Offensive Game Score: 39.1
The Story: You could make an argument—and a very compelling one at that—that this was James' finest regular-season performance.
With some preseason bulletin-board material provided by their division rival Orlando Magic, the stage was set for an instant classic. By the end of the game, it would in fact wind up with a spot inside the history books.
James posted just the fourth 50-point, 10-rebound, eight-assist since 1985-86. His 68.0 field-goal percentage was the second highest in that uber-exclusive group (trailing only Michael Jordan's 71.4 percent mark).
Fueled by that unnecessary fire, he connected on his first 11 field-goal attempts and carried 29 points into intermission. The Miami Heat picked up a critical 104-100 win over the Magic, despite getting just 27 combined points out of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
It would be another 16 months before the superstar trio took its first championship parade through South Beach, but there were signs back then of just how dominant they could become.
"When you've got LeBron James finding open three point shots on the perimeter and the rest of his team can hit water from a boat, then you've got something special," CBS Sports' Matt Moore wrote.
It was special back then and even greater now.
March 3, 2014
The Stats: 61 PTS, 22-33 FG, 8-10 3PT, 9-12 FT, 7 REB, 5 AST
The Offensive Game Score: 45.9
The Story: The efficiency was simply foolish.
"Good Lord. Sixty-one on 33 shots, that's Wilt Chamberlain-esque," Shane Battier said, via Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press (via NBA.com). "That's pretty amazing. Incredible performance."
James' pièce de résistance (for now at least) had style and substance, volume and efficiency. He hit his first eight long-range attempts, the last of which he launched nearly 30 feet away from the basket, capping a majestic 25-point third quarter.
"When that one went in, I knew," James said, via ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh "I was in a really, really good groove."
And there wasn't anything the Charlotte Bobcats could do about it. The seventh-rated defense was rendered helpless by as selfish of a James as you'll ever see.
The Bobcats tried double-teaming him, crowding him on the catch, defending with physicality, but nothing could knock James out of his groove. He was so scalding hot, he managed to pour in all 61 points without a single dunk in his 41 minutes.
Maybe this will stand as the finest scoring performance of James' legendary career. Or perhaps King James' greatest is still yet to come.