When an NBA player reaches a certain status, we tend to minimize whatever regular-season adversity he encounters, falling back on the common refrain that he'll "flip the switch" when it matters.
If Dwyane Wade looks a little disengaged or LeBron James a bit disinterested, we don't panic. We simply assume they'll summon the resolve they need once properly motivated. The same logic applies to entire teams, with the Miami Heat being one of them.
Right about now, fans of the Indiana Pacers hope "flipping the switch" is a real phenomenon—not something we create to bolster narratives and dramatize heroes.
Anecdotally, flipping the switch feels like a real thing. We can all call to mind instances when the game's greats elevated their play in crucial postseason moments, often after regular-season stretches in which they merely coasted.
But are we fooling ourselves?
We'll parse out some data from the game's biggest names—past and present—to figure out if players really can turn up their games in the pressurized environment of the postseason.
The Big Guns
If we're in search of heroic switch-flipping, we might as well start with the NBA's most historically dominant trio.
First, we have His Airness, Michael Jordan. Here's how MJ's regular-season and playoff per-36-minute averages stack up:
|Michael Jordan: Career Regular Season vs. Postseason Per-36|
Not so different, huh?
It's worth noting Jordan played about 3.5 more minutes per game in the postseason, so he provided a bit more overall value through volume. But on balance, he didn't actually perform markedly better in the playoffs than during the regular season.
In a way, that's not so surprising. After all, Jordan was notorious for playing as hard as possible at all times. You can't flip a switch when it's permanently stuck in the "on" position.
As much as any player in history, Jordan's legend—his competitiveness, his cold-blooded demeanor, his superhuman feats of night-before-the-game gambling—colors our perception of him. It's much harder to accept Jordan's relatively unchanged production in the playoffs when we remember him best for things like the Flu Game in 1997.
ESPN's Rick Weinberg wrote a retrospective of that heroic postseason effort that captures how we all deify Jordan:
Jordan sequesters himself in a dark room adjacent to the Bulls' locker room. He slowly lies his weak body down. He closes his eyes. He visualizes himself running, shooting, passing, rebounding, dunking. Soon, he emerges from the room, staggering slowly. He puts on his uniform and walks out to the court, weak and pale. "I can play," he tells coach Phil Jackson.
Jackson did plenty to contribute to the legend after the game, per Weinberg:
Because of the circumstances, with this being a critical game in the Finals, I'd have to say this is the greatest game I've seen Michael play. Just standing up was nauseating for him and caused him dizzy spells. This was a heroic effort, one to add to the collection of efforts that make up his legend.
It's a lot more fun to remember MJ as some kind of superhero who, on the brink of death, raised his game to another level than it is to accept what the chart above tells us.
The story for Larry Bird is much the same. He didn't flip the switch in the playoffs either:
|Larry Bird: Career Regular Season vs. Postseason Per-36|
Going a little deeper, Bird's career player efficiency rating was actually worse in the postseason than it was during the regular season—it dipped from 23.5 to 21.4, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Magic Johnson is no different; his per-36 playoff numbers are marginally worse than his regular season ones:
|Magic Johnson: Career Regular Season vs. Postseason Per-36|
This trend of great players performing no better—and sometimes worse—in the playoffs than they do in the regular season isn't all that strange if you think about it. Postseason opponents boast better defenses. They have more time to prepare, more hours to spend on the game plan.
Plus, the pressure intensifies and the pace slows in the playoffs. There are no stat-bolstering mid-February tilts against lottery-bound teams. Every point, rebound and assist is harder to come by in the postseason.
In a sense, it's actually more impressive that each of the greats listed above managed to sustain their typical performance levels when the conditions became more difficult. Some players wilt when the lights get a little too bright, so maybe flipping the switch is really more about maintaining performance than elevating it.
Based on the overall statistics, there doesn't appear to be any legitimacy to the flipping-the-switch theory. Spread out over a large enough sample, most great players play at a high level in the regular season and then carry it through to the games that matter more.
But something strange happens when a truly elite talent can smell his first NBA title.
Take Jordan's 1991 playoff run as an example.
|Michael Jordan: Regular Season vs. Postseason 1990-91 Per-36|
The scoring average dipped, but the assists spiked alongside the long-range shooting accuracy. Viewed alone, maybe those numbers still aren't enough to persuade skeptics. Context matters here, though, and it's key to note Jordan amassed those statistics against three notoriously physical defenses—the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons—whose lone aim was to pummel him into jelly at every opportunity.
And don't forget how Jordan took his game to an even higher level when he reached the final obstacle. He obliterated the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals with 31.2 points, 11.4 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game.
In all, Jordan's 1991 run featured his highest PER (32.0) ever, which was better than any of his career regular-season figures. He needed to be that good to secure his first championship.
Something similar happened to James in 2012.
To fully capture his switch-flipping, we're leaving behind the per-36-minute approach. James played more than five extra minutes per game in the playoffs than the regular season that year, and it's crazy to ignore the added volume.
|LeBron James: 2011-12 Regular Season vs. Postseason Per-Game Stats|
Thanks to that postseason surge, James secured his first ring.
Per Kevin Pelton of ESPN: "James' overall dominance is tough to deny. He came within six boards of joining Oscar Robertson (in 1963) as the second player to average at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a playoff run."
It seems there is a switch the great ones can flip, but it's not something they can consistently rely on. Overall, Jordan and James don't perform markedly better in the playoffs than they do in the regular season. But in that first successful title push, something was different.
Both had come close to a championship before, and both raised their games when the opportunity to close the deal appeared.
It turns out coasting teams and players aren't the ones we should expect to flip the switch when it counts. Instead, it seems we should look to transcendent talents making a championship ascent—guys who have come close to the mountaintop before but now see their unrealized goals as reachable for the first time.
With that in mind, perhaps we should all start paying closer attention to Kevin Durant. He'll head into the playoffs with his best-ever season behind him, likely in possession of his first MVP and with the singular aim of collecting that elusive first championship.
If flipping the switch is a real thing, KD will be the next to do it.