It's amazing how the playoffs can prompt the regular-season narratives to change.
Just two months ago, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant were being called among the best closers in the NBA. These players were said to have that "killer instinct" that Larry Bird and Michael Jordan possessed and that a certain small forward who took his talents to South Beach and was 1-9 in game-winning situations simply lacked the ability to dominate in the clutch like Durant and Rose.
With that opinion rampant among NBA pundits who should know better than to gauge a player's "clutchness" simply based on one of eight total seasons (who was making the big shots for Cleveland for seven years, the waterboy?), it has to make James at least somewhat laugh when he views what the true "clutch" players have done the past few days.
Kevin Durant heaving a 30-foot attempted game-winner against Dallas, followed by a turnover and bad-shot plagued overtime in a must-win Game 4.
Meanwhile, the player that could really show LeBron a thing or two about killer instinct shoots 30 percent in a must-win game and misses two attempted game-winners against James' intense defense.
LeBron follows that up with a fourth quarter where he scores or assists on 10 of his team's points, plays stifling defense on Rose down the stretch (actually holding him to 0-of-4 shooting in the last five minutes) and hits a huge jumper in overtime to win it.
James has become the best closer in this year's playoffs. The only player comparable to his late-game performances is Dirk Nowitzki—ironically, another player maligned because of a presumed "lack of killer instinct."
Each of the Heat's last six playoff wins have been fueled by James' exceptional offensive plays to secure the victory. Game 2 against the Celtics was tied at 80 in the fourth quarter before James took over, scoring 11 of the team's 14 points during a decisive 14-0 run to win it.
Games 4 and 5 were also decided by huge three-point daggers and critical perimeter jumpers (supposedly the weakest part of James' game) to seal the wins. So far in the Bulls series, the last three wins have involved James making the big plays down the stretch when the team needed them the most.
Much like the arguments about whether Miami was "good enough" to win it all this year, James is answering his critics in as resounding a fashion as possible, leaving no doubt that questions about his clutchness were laughably premature.
So what has led to the vast improvement in James' late-game performance?
Give some credit to the Heat's fourth-quarter defense. So far in the playoffs, in the last five minutes of the game, teams are shooting only 24 percent against the Heat defense.
With the team shutting down their opponents when it matters most, James has the opportunity to take over the game offensively.
In the regular season, when James was missing so many potential game-winners, I didn't think he was taking good shots. There was too much driving into the teeth of the defense against three or four waiting defenders.
Teams are just not going to let you beat them on a game-winning dunk. Unless you get a really favorable call from the official with the game on the line (they usually swallow their whistles by this time of the game), you're asking to be forced into a nearly impossible shot over six outstretched arms.
It's the reason why you rarely ever see game-winning dunks in the NBA playoffs.
But in the postseason, James, realizing he will need to trust his jumper to be effective in the clutch, has shot with much more confidence than he displayed earlier in the season. Defenses are giving James that perimeter shot and he's making it.
Hopefully James has ended any lingering questions about his "cluchness" and "killer instinct." Durant and Rose, on the other hand...they still have a lot left to prove.
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