2012 NBA Playoffs: LeBron James' 5 Worst Playoff Chokes of All Time
There is absolutely no doubt in anybody's mind that we just witnessed one of the best playoff performances of all time with LeBron's 40/18/9 in Game 4 against Indiana.
There's even less doubt that LeBron's playoff resume is littered with more breathtaking performances just like that, pleasing to kids and stat-geeks alike.
But for a player so talented and still the brunt of many jokes and Internet memes revolving around his lack of rings, one can certainly find some ugly ducklings in the herd of LeBron playoff performances.
To rank the worst "LeChokes" in his career, I'll concentrate on three factors.
1. Urgency of the game. Was it a Game 2 when his team was up 1-0, or were they down 3-2 in a must-win?
2. Expectations going into the series. Was LeBron's team playing a team they were expected to lose or win against?
3. Overall impact on legacy. This is very hard to quantify, but it should matter. Five years down the road, if I type in "Lebron James choke" into Google, what will be the first thing that pops up?
Right after his magnificent performance in Game 5 of the Detroit series in 2007, LeBron got completely schooled by Tim Duncan and the Spurs in Game 1 of the NBA Finals in 2007. He had only 14 points on 25 percent shooting.
If you watched the game, you certainly feel like that clunker belongs on this list. However, in 2006, LeBron wasn't even 22 years old and was still carrying an absolutely abominable Cavs team. It does not affect his legacy in any way; nobody in their right mind would have bet against an experienced and much deeper Spurs team.
It also may be tempting to simply put every single game LeBron played in the 2011 Finals up there. But factoring in urgency, I can't include Game 2 of the 2011 Finals ahead of some of these other games, because the series being tied at 1-1 isn't as bad as being down 3-2 and losing home court.
It is also basically impossible to include any game in his 2009 playoff run. The Cavs dominated the first two rounds, but ran into a more well-rounded Magic team in the ECF. He threw up a 39/8/8 stat line while playing amazing defense the whole time. Not even Skip Bayless could blame the fact that we maybe missed our only chance of seeing LeBron/Kobe in the Finals on James.
No. 5 Game 1 vs. Boston Celtics, Eastern Semi 2008
Statistically, this was maybe LeBron's worst game ever. The poor dude went 2-for-18, scoring 12 points and clanking six ill-advised and well-contested triples. He had nine rebounds and nine assists, but also a whopping 10 turnovers.
He also came up short in the clutch. He had the clearest path to the basket all night in the final minutes to tie the game and missed a finger-roll that he makes in his sleep, along with two other drives and, surprise, a three-pointer.
The above paragraph was inexcusable given that he had the much shorter Paul Pierce and Ray Allen rotating defensively on him.
So why doesn't the worst shooting performance the Ringless King has ever had in the playoffs qualify for the top spot? Like the 2006 Finals, it's very difficult to call LeBron a "choker" when he's carrying a sub-par Cavs team against a team that is just simply better than them.
The Celtics had KG, Paul Pierce, and Ray Ray, and were the eventual champions. The only other All-Star on the Cavs was Mo Williams.
People also forgot about this game relatively quickly given that just a couple of days later, LeBron solved the C's defense, played his heart out and averaged a 27/6/7 against a defense that pressured and hounded him all series long.
Looking back on this series, I'd tend to remember LeBron's heroic 45 point effort in Game 7 than his 2-for-18 in Game 1.
No. 4 Game 1 vs. Chicago Bulls, Eastern Finals 2011
Another Game 1 seems fishy, but in this one, LeBron stunk up the joint with just 15 points, six rebounds, and six assists, on 33 percent shooting with four turnovers.
The Heat needed to come out and make a statement to the feisty yet less-talented Bulls that they should have been the No.1 seed. Game 1 winners usually win the series, and for James to come out and play hot potato in crunch time and defer to Bosh is unacceptable.
The Bulls also insulted the best player on the planet by throwing just one Luol Deng on him and LeBron let Deng punk him physically.
The young Bulls, led by the MVP, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were a team that thrives off of energy, confidence, and defense. Give an energy team more confidence and they will start playing better defense, and the momentum could have easily swung in Chicago's favour.
This clunker could certainly have been higher if the Heat had let Game 1 set the tone for the series. Fortunately for LeBron, he stepped up in the next four games, dominating and sending Miami to the Finals.
Like the Game 1 in Boston, it's hard for a lot of people in Miami to remember this one compared to some of the virtuoso performances he submitted in Games 2 to 5. He stepped up, especially in crunch-time and even some of the biggest critics of his late-game chops, Welcome Party, and the Decision were quieted.
Until what happened next.
No. 3 Game 4 vs. Dallas Mavericks, NBA Finals 2011
This performance was so ghastly, ESPN's Bill Simmons wrote an entire article on it, questioning to the extremest of extremes what this game meant for LeBron's legacy. Especially since the series was 2-2, and he would have looked somewhat stupid if LeBron stepped up and the Heat won Game 5.
Eight points. 3-for-11 shooting. Four turnovers. Most of his blunders happened in the fourth quarter, and the game was decided by three points.
It's inexcusable that the Heat blew Game 4 specifically because Miami led most of the time, Dirk was so sick he almost didn't play, and Dallas basically had one guy defending them rim (Tyson Chandler). So all he had to do was pull a 2006 Finals D-Wade, demand the ball, drive to the basket every freakin' time he touched the ball.
It's not like he had a stud defensive stopper on him, either. He had DeShawn Stevenson on him, who is a nobody and basically used a LeBron feud a couple years back to make himself famous.
There is no way any all-time great basketball player would let a guy with not even one percent the talent he has punk him out like that.
In the waning moments of the game, LeBron played hot potato, passed up open three-pointers, and his body language was exceedingly clear he'd rather defer to guys much less talented than him when it was his legacy on the line.
No. 2 Games 5/6 vs. Dallas Mavericks, NBA Finals 2012
I'm just going to lump these two together because they were both basically the same thing: high-urgency, elimination games on the biggest stage that will definitely be remembered when considering LeBron's legacy.
They're separate from Game 4 because LeBron played somewhat decently at the beginning, but then absolutely collapsed in the fourth quarter of both games, doing the exact same stuff he did in Game 4.
They rank higher because they were two "show-me" games, and obviously Game 6 was an elimination game.
Game 4 came out of nowhere. But he could have come back, thrived off the criticism, and shut his critics up. Instead, he dwelled on Game 4's mistakes, disappeared in the clutch, passed to Mario Chalmers whenever he could, and didn't do anything to back up Wade.
His refusal to take advantage of his talents and turn into the Frozen One, beat Stevenson off the dribble, get Chandler in foul trouble and absolutely destroy the Mavericks was what many sportscasters, including Stephen A Smith have referred to as "disgusting" on multiple occasions.
It's a shame because you know that if anybody in the league questioned or punked MJ, he'd make a mental picture of him and add it to his bucket list that he'll drop 50 on him when they play next. And if that guy was checking him in a big playoff game, much less the Finals? Game over. He wouldn't pass it to Steve Kerr unless they were quadruple-teaming him.
That is what great basketball players do. It disappoints you as a true basketball fan to watch that kind of performance because you're left wondering whether LeBron wants to be great.
No. 1 Game 5 vs. Boston Celtics, Eastern Semi's 2010
How can this be ahead of the 2011 NBA Finals? LeBron had 15, shot 21 percent, but he contributed elsewhere, right? Stat-wise, this isn't quite as bad as the 2008 Eastern Semi Game 1. And the Eastern Semi's are obviously not a bigger stage than the NBA Finals.
Stats don't tell the whole story. You had to watch this game to see what was going on. LeBron straight up quit in this game. I rip LeBron for playing hot potato and deferring in the '11 Finals, but it was even worse in this game.
LeBron had played some games that could be labelled sub-par performances prior to this, notably against the Spurs (2007 Finals) and our No. 5 selection. But this game seemed to be the first game that we truly saw that there was something wrong with James in clutch moments. Something wrong with the qualities that formed the competitive DNA in him.
The world noticed that LeBron was faced with a tough situation and didn't exhibit any alpha-dog qualities or aggressiveness that defined the all-time greats. This is the first game that I thought to myself, "LeBron might not live up to his potential", or, "LeBron is afraid of the moment".
This game was the TSN "Turning Point" of LeBron's career. Just like Kobe's hideous air balls against Utah, Magic's "Tragic Johnson" performances in 1984, and MJ getting continually whipped by Detroit in the late 80's, LeBron should have learned from this game.
He should have reacted like a Pavlovian dog to the criticism he got after this series, associating defeat and humiliation with this game. He should have spent all summer in the gym working on his three-point shot and learning post moves.
Instead, he orchestrated the Decision, the welcome party, and let the distraction of a multimedia parade poison his summer. Yet another thing any great player would have never let happen.
If LeBron never wins a championship and continually submits performances like these at the worst times, I will look back on his career and point to this game as the genesis of it all.
Coupled with the fact that this loss pretty much said, "Screw you Cleveland, I won't even have the decency to try and win you a title before I leave", destroying the faith of one of the most tortured sports cities on the planet and his hometown, this game gave credence to the notion that not only does LeBron choke in big moments, but he just doesn't have the competitive mettle to handle the challenges of carrying an NBA franchise like the greats did.