NBA Metrics 101: Ranking LeBron James' Greatest Christmas-Day Performances
Curl up with a cold glass of eggnog in your hands—spiked, if you're of age and like to partake in that sort of thing—and enjoy the crackling of a fireplace. Pop in Die Hard and enjoy Bruce Willis' performance in the greatest Christmas movie of our time.
Then clear time on the holiday calendar to watch LeBron James square off with the defending champions. His rematch with the Golden State Warriors will be the 12th outing of his career on December 25, and his history on that special day indicates that you probably won't want to miss his heroics.
James is 8-3 in his previous Christmas contests, and he's averaged a whopping 27.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks while shooting 50.5 percent from the field, 32.1 percent from downtown and 64.5 percent from the stripe. As you might imagine based on those numbers, he's posted some special performances.
But which are the best of the best, and how will his 2017 exploits factor in?
We can't answer the second question yet, but we can see how the previous 11 showcases stack up by adding together his game score and plus/minus from each outing—essentially looking both at his raw statistical performance as an individual and an estimation of his team-based success.
11. 2015 (3.1)
Game Score: 12.1
Result: 89-83 loss to the Golden State Warriors
Game Line: 25 points (10-of-26 FGs, 1-of-5 3Ps, 4-of-9 FTs), 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, 4 turnovers
Though James still put up respectable raw numbers by the standards of mere mortals, he couldn't ever get going in a Finals preview with the Golden State Warriors that saw the Cleveland Cavaliers enter on the heels of six consecutive wins. By the time he'd missed three of four free-throw attempts in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and air-balled a triple with 12.7 seconds remaining, he'd left little doubt this just wasn't his night.
That's been a rarity on Christmas for James, but the poor outings do occasionally happen.
Draymond Green hounded him throughout the night, and the Warriors defense was locked in. James also didn't receive much help from Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, who combined to go 9-of-31 from the field and 0-of-11 from beyond the arc, which allowed the opposition to focus too much of its attention on him. That forced him into mistakes and heavily contested attempts from all over the half-court set.
"We gave ourselves a chance. If we play like that defensively, we're going to be a very tough team to beat," he said after the game, per Josh Dubow of the Associated Press (via NBA.com). "Offensively, we just didn't have it. No one had it."
10. 2003 (10.1)
Game Score: 19.1
Result: 113-101 loss to Orlando Magic
Game Line: 34 points (13-of-28 FGs, 4-of-10 3Ps, 4-of-5 FTs), 2 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 8 turnovers
The NBA didn't waste much time placing James on the featured stage, though this showdown with the Orlando Magic put two teams on display that had won a combined 16 games in 40 attempts during the 2002-03 season. And while the moment wasn't too large for a rookie who tossed in 34 points and six assists, it still came in a double-digit loss to another lackluster squad.
James' score here is hampered rather significantly by his inability to propel the Cleveland Cavaliers to a stronger margin while he was on the floor. It's dragged down by his eight turnovers—seven of which were off-target passes stolen away by the Magic.
It's still a noteworthy showing.
Since 1963-64, 434 different rookies have suited up in a Christmas game. Not a single one has outscored James, with Bill Cartwright (33), Patrick Ewing (32) and Adrian Dantley (30) serving as the most noteworthy challengers. The four-time MVP's 19.1 game score also ranks No. 3 among the same group, behind only Pete Verhoeven (27.0) and Ewing (22.9).
9. 2008 (11.7)
Game Score: 15.7
Result: 93-89 victory over Washington Wizards
Game Line: 18 points (6-of-13 FGs, 0-of-2 3Ps, 6-of-10 FTs), 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, 3 turnovers
"We're not happy, but we'll take the win," James said, per Cleveland.com's Brian Windhorst, after a victory over the lowly Washington Wizards, whose 4-22 record paled in comparison to the Cleveland Cavaliers' 24-4 mark. "It wouldn't have been good to have 20,000 people throwing up confetti/chalk and we got an 'L.' It would've ruined my Christmas."
Nine of his 18 points came during the final period to prevent disaster, but that also speaks to how surprisingly uninvolved he was throughout this contest. Through the first three quarters, he only posted nine points, two rebounds, three assists, three steals and two turnovers while shooting 5-of-9 from the field and 1-of-3 from the stripe.
These days, James' going through the motions like that would make for a head-scratching occurrence. He's too important to his teams to take just nine field-goal attempts and record only three dimes in 36 minutes. And it was just as inconceivable back then, considering he entered the Dec. 25 contest with a 33.5 usage rate and 38.6 assist percentage—both astronomical figures for even the most involved superstars.
8. 2014 (12.6)
Game Score: 21.6
Result: 101-91 loss to Miami Heat
Game Line: 30 points (9-of-16 FGs, 2-of-8 3Ps, 10-of-18 FTs), 4 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 turnovers
This legendary forward has never been better while wearing "LeBron" on the back of his jersey rather than "James." Then again, he's also never been worse. And if you're wondering why we're not including a January 2014 contest with the Brooklyn Nets, his nickname jersey read "King James" that night.
But this game was notable for more than the Christmas jerseys.
James was going up against the Miami Heat for the first time since departing South Beach and ending the Big Three era. He was squaring off against Dwyane Wade as frenemies yet again, this time after a few years working together and learning the nuances of each other's on-court tricks.
Wade, who exploded for 31 points, five rebounds and five assists, got the best of him. Even without Chris Bosh (sidelined with a calf injury), the Heat roared out to a 13-point lead at halftime and never looked back. And while their shooting guard was mortal in the final two periods, it didn't matter.
Offensively, James didn't earn too large a slice of Cleveland's blame pie. He earned more trips to the charity stripe by himself (18) than the entire Miami roster (17), and he kept everyone on his team involved throughout the proceedings. But his defense wasn't as focused this particular night, as he was unable to corral either Wade or Luol Deng, the latter of whom went for 25 points on 16 attempts from the field.
7. 2013 (12.8)
Game Score: 12.8
Result: 101-95 victory over Los Angeles Lakers
Game Line: 19 points (7-of-14 FGs, 0-of-4 3Ps, 5-of-9 FTs), 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 turnovers
Consider this the last relatively lackluster performance in this countdown, because the score is about to double as we move into the top six.
Heading into the 2013-14 season, the NBA presumably thought this would be a marquee affair. The Los Angeles Lakers seemed poised for another playoff appearance with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash on the roster, even if Dwight Howard had already departed for the Houston Rockets.
But the Purple and Gold entered this outing at 13-15 and had already piled up numerous injuries, to the point that they started Gasol, Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson and Shawne Williams against the Heat.
That quintet couldn't do much damage after getting off to a scorching start and winning the opening quarter by six points.
James, meanwhile, put together an efficient performance but was atypically uninvolved, instead deferring to the talented members of the Miami Heat's Big Three. The ball often found its way into Dwyane Wade's hands (23 points and seven assists), while Chris Bosh (23 points and 11 rebounds) submitted one of the game's two double-doubles—Gasol had the other with 13 and 13.
Of course, the No. 1 pick of the 2003 NBA draft still did some good. On a night in which his jumper just wouldn't fall—he was 1-of-8 from outside the painted area—he kept attacking, successfully finishing all six of his plays at the basket and earning nine trips to the stripe.
6. 2009 (24.3)
Game Score: 16.3
Result: 102-87 victory over Los Angeles Lakers
Game Line: 26 points (9-of-19 FGs, 2-of-7 3Ps, 6-of-11 FTs), 4 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 7 turnovers
Same opponent, different team.
This time around, a younger James was still a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Lakers were much more of a juggernaut. Behind Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, they'd go on to win 57 regular-season showings and then earn the title in Game 7 against the Boston Celtics.
But not before losing to James' Cavs on this particular holiday in blowout fashion.
Cleveland led shortly after the opening tip, and its lead ballooned to 20 points during the second quarter before it staved off a run and eventually earned the wire-to-wire victory. All the while, James was impressive enough to force Ron Artest into foul trouble—the Lakers in general were frustrated throughout the night, racking up technical fouls as an unhappy Staples Center crowd watched—but also content to set up his teammates.
Though he had 26 points and nine assists on the night, his most special play didn't even get recorded in the box score.
With the clock ticking down toward halftime, James dribbled up the floor and rose into the air a few feet shy of the midcourt stripe. Hanging in the air to avoid contests from Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom, he released the ball and watched as it soared through the air to expand Cleveland's lead to 12 points. He then raised his hands toward the rafters in triumphant celebration.
Except it didn't count. He'd released the rock milliseconds too late, preventing the successful conversion of, at the time, the second-longest shot of his career. The longest was from quite a bit farther away, though.
5. 2016 (28.4)
Game Score: 24.4
Result: 109-108 victory over Golden State Warriors
Game Line: 31 points (12-of-22 FGs, 4-of-8 3Ps, 3-of-7 FTs), 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 5 turnovers
This was a Christmas classic, with the Golden State Warriors leading the Cleveland Cavaliers by seven points heading into the fourth quarter but ultimately leaving Quicken Loans Arena with a one-point loss. Kyrie Irving played the part of hero by scoring the night's final pair of baskets—including a gorgeous 13-foot game-winner with three seconds remaining—but James was just as instrumental to the comeback efforts.
After entering the game for DeAndre Liggins with just over seven minutes left, he produced a momentum-swinging steal of Draymond Green, assisted an Iman Shumpert triple and knocked down a pair of close-range buckets, first closing the gap to two points and then pushing Cleveland ahead. All the while, he played lockdown defense against the Dubs' litany of scoring options.
During the second quarter, he intimidated Andre Iguodala into passing up a fast-break layup, likely triggering nightmares about the infamous Finals-sealing block in their previous meeting. Then he swatted away a paint attempt from Zaza Pachulia for good measure. He sandwiched a Kevin Durant slam with two impressive finishes of his own one quarter earlier.
James' stats in this game might not measure up against some of his other Christmas performances, and we're actually about to leap up into another tier. But this game had the unquestioned intensity of a playoff showdown, and this superstar helped it live up to the massive billing.
4. 2007 (40.4)
Game Score: 22.4
Result: 96-82 victory over Miami Heat
Game Line: 25 points (9-of-19 FGs, 0-of-3 3Ps, 7-of-11 FTs), 6 rebounds, 12 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 2 turnovers
Now we're moving into the realm of outrageous performances.
Scoring 25 points on 19 field-goal attempts is impressive. Racking up 12 assists with only a pair of turnovers falls into the same category. Doing both at the same time while earning a plus/minus of 18? That's pretty damn good.
Since 1963-64, only 228 games have seen a player go for at least 25 points and 12 dimes with no more than 19 field-goal tries and two cough-ups—an average of just over four per season. Thirty-six of those performances have taken place during the final month of the annual calendar, but James and Spud Webb are the only two to put up such numbers on the Christmas Day stage.
And this wasn't a contest conducive to racking up numbers. It was a point-preventing battle as the Cavaliers tried to kickstart a struggling defense, and physicality reigned supreme.
James spent the night playing stingy defense against the Miami Heat's wings, guarding Dwyane Wade (held in check throughout the second half) and just about everyone else on the opposing roster. He also attacked the rim with reckless abandon, routinely challenging Shaquille O'Neal and sometimes paying the price.
"I got elbowed by Shaq in the face, which is not a good thing," he said while talking to the Associated Press with an ice bag remedying a swollen jaw, via ESPN.com. "Ever."
3. 2012 (41.2)
Game Score: 28.2
Result: 103-97 victory over Oklahoma City Thunder
Game Line: 29 points (12-of-20 FGs, 0-of-3 3Ps, 5-of-5 FTs), 8 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 3 turnovers
Make no mistakes.
This was an encore to the 2012 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, putting one matchup on display above all others. No matter what Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Love and the other big names did, the head-to-head clash between James and Kevin Durant mattered more.
James excelled in the hard-fought victory, nearly recording a triple-double while playing with remarkable efficiency. In the box score, Durant was almost his equal, going for 33 points, seven rebounds and three assists on 11-of-21 shooting from the field, a 2-of-4 showing from downtown and a 9-of-11 performance at the free-throw line.
"The much-ballyhooed matchup between the two best players in the NBA...lived up to the hype," Ethan Rothstein penned for SBNation.com. "The two guarded each other for much of the game and fulfilled their expectations spectacularly, playing exquisite offense and defense, but not preventing each other from turning the game into an entertaining affair."
But the spidery OKC forward didn't get the number that mattered most: that coveted "1" in the victory column. The Thunder were outscored by a half-dozen points while he was on the floor, which stood in stark contrast to James' vastly superior plus/minus.
2. 2010 (48.3)
Game Score: 33.3
Result: 96-80 victory over Los Angeles Lakers
Game Line: 27 points (8-of-14 FGs, 5-of-6 3Ps, 6-of-6 FTs), 11 rebounds, 10 assists, 4 steals, 1 turnover
For what it's worth, LeBron James didn't record the top plus/minus in this blowout victory over a Los Angeles Lakers squad that would go on to win 57 games. Chris Bosh (plus-21) and Dwyane Wade (plus-21) both topped his mark.
But neither of them recorded a triple-double, which has become a rather unique feat on Christmas Day. In fact, here's the list of players to submit such a performance December 25:
- Oscar Robertson: 37 points, 15 rebounds and 16 assists in 1963
- Oscar Robertson: 26 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in 1967
- John Havlicek: 21 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in 1967
- LeBron James: 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in 2010
- Russell Westbrook: 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in 2013
How's that for impressive company?
But James did more than hit double figures in three different categories. He also asserted himself as a defensive ace by holding Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol in check while swiping the ball away four times. Better still, he did so while playing with unrelenting offensive efficiency, nearly putting up two points per field-goal attempt and turning the ball over just once.
For most players, this would be a career performance. James isn't most players.
1. 2011 (61.1)
Game Score: 34.1
Result: 105-94 victory over Dallas Mavericks
Game Line: 37 points (11-of-19 FGs, 15-of-19 FTs), 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks, 3 turnovers
Forget about Christmas Day restrictions. James was so excellent in this redemption effort against the Dallas Mavericks, who had so thoroughly negated his usual heroics on the sport's biggest stage earlier that year, that we don't need those stringent qualifiers.
Since 1963, only 21 different players have matched this per-game line (excluding the turnovers), and fewer still were able to do so without taking 20 shots from the field. Add in the cough-up and field-goal-attempt benchmarks, and the list diminishes to include only James and Karl Malone.
This performance was special. And making it even better was the fact that it kicked off a lockout-shortened season, serving as James' first appearance since his humiliation in the 2011 NBA Finals, when he was so often relegated to standing in the corner and hoping for assistance from his talented Miami Heat teammates.
Dallas got to enjoy a ring ceremony before the start of the proceedings, and that was just about its last positive moment throughout the night. James was on a mission, submitting one of his best box scores and helping the Heat outscore Dirk Nowitzki and Co. by a whopping 27 points while he was on the floor—a mark he's topped just 36 times throughout his illustrious career.