A Brief History of LeBron James in the NBA Finals

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 31, 2014

Having dispatched the Indiana Pacers in six games, LeBron James punched a ticket to his fifth NBA Finals, and this one is going to count for more than any that have come before it.

That's because James' history in the league's championship round has been something of a mixed bag. Two early failures raised serious questions about his fitness as the NBA's next transcendent superstar—questions he went a long way toward answering in his two most recent visits to the Finals.

James' Miami Heat are already just the fourth team to make four consecutive trips to the Finals (an achievement shared only by the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers), so regardless of the outcome, LBJ has taken up residence along some of the all-time greats.

But in this, his fifth trip to the promised land, there's something extra at stake: a chance to tilt his Finals record into the black. See, James is just 2-2 in his four previous visits, which means this year's championship round will give him a chance to get ahead...or fall under .500 yet again.

We'll look forward at the likelihood of that happening plenty of times before the Finals tip off, but first, let's look back at James' journey to this point.


2007 vs. San Antonio Spurs

Game Log

LeBron James' 2007 NBA Finals Performance
Game 1147411.250
Game 2257610.429
Game 3258721.391
Game 42461000.333
Series Avg.

Result: Spurs win 4-0


High Point: There weren't many, as James posted a grossly inefficient stat line against a Spurs defense that utilized Bruce Bowen and a scheme completely focused on making his life difficult. This might shock you, but Mike Brown didn't have any strategic offensive solutions to alleviate the relentless pressure on James.

Still, he managed at least one sweet highlight, which counts for something.

Low Point: James tastes elimination for the first time, hitting just 10-of-30 attempts in a one-point, series-ending loss in Game 4. 


Memorable Moment: Any time Tim Duncan tells you the league will soon be yours, it's memorable.

Post-Series Narrative: The main theme to arise after James' first trip to the Finals was that he wasn't quite ready for prime time yet. San Antonio was as seasoned and professional a champion as existed in the league at the time (clearly, not much has changed since), and James came away from this series having seen greatness firsthand.

In conjunction with that notion, though, there was also a pervasive belief that there would be nothing but repeated trips to the Finals in James' future. In that sense, this defeat wasn't viewed so much as a failure as it was a sign of things to come. After all, when the Cleveland Cavaliers were eliminated, James was still just 22 years old.

Unfortunately, this trip would be the first and last one the Cavs made to the Finals. Three disappointing playoff ousters later, James would take his talents to South Beach.


2011 vs. Dallas Mavericks 

Game Log

LeBron James' 2011 NBA Finals Performance
Game 1249510.563
Game 2208441.533
Game 3173920.429
Game 489720.273
Game 517101001.421
Game 6214611.600
Series Avg.

Result: Mavericks win 4-2


High Point: James started things out with a bang, putting forth his best overall effort of the series in Game 1 with 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists on 9-of-16 shooting. He buried four triples on five attempts and played with the kind of passion that caused many to believe he wouldn't be denied in his first trip to the Finals since losing to San Antonio four years earlier.

This jam iced Game 1, putting Miami up 10 after James knocked down the free throw:

Per Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated, James sounded like a guy who had developed an advanced understanding of what it took to win, saying after Game 1:

In order for us to win basketball games, we have to defend and we have to get stops, and our offense will speak for itself when we continue to get stops. I think for me going into the fourth quarter, I know it's winning time. That's when the game is won.

Low Point: With the Heat up 2-1 in the series, James disappeared in Game 4, scoring just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting. To that point in his career, it was James' lowest postseason scoring total ever.


Memorable Moment: After Game 4, Mavericks guard DeShawn Stevenson famously said James "checked out," per Art Garcia of ESPN Dallas. Criticism for being too deferential would dog James for years to come, and much of it started with Stevenson's comments in this series.

Post-Series Narrative: Uh oh.

ESPN's Michael Wilbon summed things up after Game 4, providing the momentum for what would become the prevailing narrative of James' career:

If losing Game 4 didn't make LeBron James absolutely miserable the aftermath will … or should. His performance in Miami's loss Tuesday night gave plenty of ammunition to the folks who believe less in the concept of a bad game than in the notion that LeBron shrinks from the competition, that he's actually afraid of the pressure moments a player of his talents and stature should relish.

It's hard to imagine this was the state of many people's opinions on James just three years ago, but it's true. His was a legacy of failing to get over the hump, of shrinking from the moment. It's hard to compare the way James was viewed after falling to Dallas in this series to the wrath The Decision incurred, but there's a case to be made that losing to the Mavs was a low point in James' career.


2012 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Game Log

LeBron James' 2012 NBA Finals Performance
Game 1309440.458
Game 2328510.455
Game 32914300.478
Game 42691220.500
Game 526111312.474
Series Avg.28.610.

Result: Heat win 4-1


High Point: James could taste his first championship, and he made sure it wouldn't slip away by notching an impressive triple-double in the closeout contest. His 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists buried the Thunder and finally (FINALLY!) quieted critics who said he'd never win the big one.

Low Point: For a minute there, it looked like a changing of the guard was taking place right before our eyes. Kevin Durant outplayed James in OKC's Game 1 win, dropping 36 points on 12-of-20 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and four assists.

James had changed his game over the past year, but per SI's Ian Thomsen, it didn't look like he was a fully formed product yet: 

James has spent the past year reinventing himself to become a more physically aggressive player, a traditional low-post threat. In this game he was not at all passive. But it was as if he was experimenting frantically, trying to find any kind of spot where he could make a difference.

KD, on the other hand, looked ready to snatch James' crown before he ever got a chance to wear it.


Memorable Moment: Duh.

What did you think it'd be? No single dunk or highlight play was more memorable than the moment James finally grasped what he'd been chasing his whole career.

Post-Series Narrative: The King finally arrived in 2012, and upon showing up, he immediately banished all doubters from the realm.

With this first Finals win, James added the missing piece to his trophy case and filled the hole in his legacy. It wasn't just that he got a ring, it was that he played brilliantly in doing so. There were no more fourth-quarter disappearances in this one.

James summited the mountain, and he did it in a fashion that removed any question about his NBA supremacy.


2013 vs. San Antonio Spurs

Game Log

LeBron James' 2013 NBA Finals Performance
Game 118181000.438
Game 2178733.412
Game 31511520.333
Game 43311422.600
Game 5256840.364
Game 632101131.423
Game 73712420.522
Series Avg.25.310.

Result: Heat win 4-3


High Point: It has to be the improbable, incredible comeback in the final minute of Game 6, doesn't it?

Imagine how James' legacy would be different if the Spurs had been able to hang on to a five-point lead with 23 seconds left. He'd have three Finals losses on his resume and just one win. We're not talking Jim Kelly territory here, but James' reputation as a guy who couldn't close the deal—something we all thought he had shed in 2012—would have cropped up again if not for an incredible turnabout.

The final sequence that resulted in Miami tying the game is just too harrowing to describe in words. Fortunately, it was captured on film.

Low Point: I mean, I guess the only logical low point was being down by five with 23 seconds left in the game. James' basketball life was probably flashing before his eyes—and for good reason, per ESPN's Kevin Pelton (subscription required): 

Before Manu Ginobili walked to the free throw line for two attempts (he'd split, giving Miami a slight opening for a comeback), the odds against the Heat winning were 66-1. That's how close we were to San Antonio finishing the game with a celebration.


Memorable Moment: We've seen a lot of dunks and celebrations so far. How about a sweet block from Game 2 as our memorable moment?

Get. It. Out.

Post-Series Narrative: Validation, mixed with a generous helping of relief.

James nabbed his second title in dramatic fashion, surviving Game 6 before exploding in a relatively comfortable Game 7 win. The poetry of defeating Duncan, the man who told James the league would be his six seasons earlier, was hard to ignore.

LBJ's second title validated his greatness and elevated his reputation to the level of the game's historical elite.

That's the world we're living in now, and James has a chance to build on his already incredible legacy with yet another title shot. If he harnesses the lessons of his four previous trips to the championship round—the bitter disappointments, soul-crushing losses and redemptive victories—he'll be in great shape to secure that third ring.

Of course, Duncan will have something to say about that. But James has bested them before, and he's older, wiser and hungrier than ever this time around.

That's the beauty of James' NBA Finals history—he's still writing it.


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