Comparing LeBron James' Playoff Buzzer-Beating Shots to Michael Jordan's Best

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 23, 2013

There is no escaping the LeBron James and Michael Jordan comparisons. None whatsoever.

LeBron and Jordan are two of the best—arguably the two best—players the NBA has ever seen, forever destined to be pitted against one another.

But while the debate as to who the better player overall is rolls on, the postseason opens up a realm of other possibilities.

Championship rings are the ultimate barometer for a player's success; they're the tangible hardware by which most (all?) legacies are measured.

Equally as telling is a player's performance in the clutch, when the game is on the line. Those moments are big, so big the NBA has built an entire campaign around them. No-names become stars; stars become legends; history is written. That's clutch.

The Chosen One has laid claim to more than his fair share of accolades with the outcome of the game in his hands. Once considered the most prolific choke artist of the generation, his image has since transcended most criticism.

Is what LeBron has done in the clutch during the postseason thus far comparable to that of His Airness?

Titles tell part of the story, just not all of it.

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What Is "Clutch"?

There are countless definitions of what it means to be "clutch."

Some interpretations are more common than others, and there are also those who are a bit too cavalier with the term.

LeBron was clutch for his most recent Game 1 winner against the Indiana Pacers, Jordan was clutch for his NBA Finals-winning shot against the Utah Jazz in 1998 and Steve Nash was clutch for handing Metta World Peace the same towel to wipe his face that he had just used on his sweaty armpits.

So, what is clutch?

For our main focus here—buzzer-beaters/game-winners—we're going to use the criteria provided by ESPN's Alok Pattani (via Henry Abbott of

  • Playoff games only (no regular season)
  • Go-ahead or game-tying shot attempts (free throws, turnovers and the like were ignored)
  • Final 24 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime

Simple enough?


LeBron James and Michael Jordan by the Numbers

Advanced analytics have never been more popular to employ. Which is awesome. It also means that clutch playoff statistics for Jordan are hard to come by.

Luckily for us, Pattani has us covered there as well.

According to Pattani, Jordan was 9-of-18 for his career in our playoff version of clutch.

A 50 percent clip on such shots is simply outstanding. As of 2011, when this data was compiled, the NBA shot just 27.8 percent with the game on the line as a whole. Jordan nearly doubled that.

Right up through 2011, only Kobe Bryant attempted more postseason shots in the clutch. He put up 25, hitting on just seven (28 percent).  

Only four other players managed to knock down 50 percent of their clutch attempts during that time as well (Ray Allen, Michael Finley, Tayshaun Prince and Robert Horry). None of them put up more than 12 such shots.

In fact, Jordan was the only player who attempted at least 13 shots and managed to even hit on 42 percent or more of them.

But this isn't 2011 anymore. This is 2013. The data has had time to change. It's LeBron's league now.

Per, since LeBron entered the league in 2003, he has hit on the highest number of clutch field goals in the NBA. Thus far, he is 7-of-16 on those shots, good for a 43.8 percent clip, significantly lower than Jordan's. 

LeBron's average is still well above that of the league, though. As of now, the NBA average on these clutch shots is just 28.3 percent. LeBron's clip is more than 15 percentage points above that.

Below is a chart that shows how LeBron has stacked up against some of the NBA's best in this clutch department since entering the league. Jordan's career clip is also included.

Player Makes Attempts FG%
Michael Jordan 9 18 50
LeBron James 7 16 43.8
Kevin Durant 5 12 41.7
Dirk Nowitzki 5 12 41.7
Kobe Bryant 5 17 29.4

Once again we find Jordan on a whole other level. Even more so than LeBron.

That said, Jordan shot 50 percent for his career. How did he fare through his first 10 seasons?

Jordan concluded his 10th season in 1995. Per, Jordan was 6-of-10 in the clutch during the postseason through his first 10 years. His 60 percent clip trounces LeBron's 43.8.

If we were to break it down even further to see how he fared through his first 16 attempts—the number LeBron is currently at—it gets a little bit closer.

Jordan hit on eight of his first 16 clutch attempts in the playoffs, just one more than LeBron. Though that gives him a 50 percent ratio to LeBron's 43.8, one shot really isn't that much of a difference. So Kudos to LeBron.

Still, Jordan was able to maintain a 50 percent conversion rate for his career, which is beyond impressive.

Will LeBron be able to elevate his current numbers and do the same, or perhaps even better?

We'll just have to wait and see.

The Made Shots Themselves

It's time for us to move beyond the numerical side of clutch and award style points.

LeBron and Jordan have 16 clutch postseason makes between them, all of which were fun to watch and will be thrilling to relive.

Our grading criteria will consist of us evaluating the difficulty. Layups obviously aren't as tough as a fadeaway, and fadeaways aren't as hard as blindfolded half-court heaves.

You get the point.

Now, onward.

Michael Jordan's Makes

1985 NBA Playoffs vs. Milwaukee Bucks

Down by one with 25 seconds remaining in Game 3 of a first-round series against the Bucks, Jordan came off a screen and hit a strong-side half-fadeaway.

Admittedly, it wasn't that difficult. Jordan didn't have to create space for himself and was wide open on the catch.

With that in mind, his release was both quick and perfect. It doesn't hurt that he ripped the bottom of the net on it, either.

Grade: B

1989 NBA Playoffs vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

You're going to get double your money's worth on this one.

With the Chicago Bulls first-round series against the Cavaliers knotted up at two games apiece, Jordan hit a two to put his Bulls up by one.

It wasn't especially impressive. Not that it wasn't awesome, because it was. But Jordan was able to create space without a ball or head fake. The moment was far more difficult than the shot.

Grade: B-

Craig Ehlo wasn't going down without a fight, though. His path to the rim went basically unimpeded and he was able to hit a layup. The Cavs had regained the lead.

With just three seconds remaining, Jordan caught the inbound pass. He took two dribbles to his left before elevating for a pull-up jumper over Ehlo. And he drilled—in style.

Seriously, he hung in the air forever. It doesn't get (much) better.

Grade: A

1989 NBA Playoffs vs. Detroit Pistons

With nine seconds remaining against the Pistons in Game 3 of the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals, Jordan went to work.

He caught the ball near the timeline, went right and buried a shot off the glass to give the Bulls the lead with three seconds remaining.

Though he had some space, he wasn't afforded the best of angles. He also had more time to get close to the rim.

Once again we saw him use his excessive air time to his advantage, though, getting enough of a look so that he could heave it in off the glass.

Just a great shot by an even greater player.

Grade: A-

1991 NBA Playoffs vs. Los Angeles Lakers

Chicago was down two with just under 11 seconds remaining in Game 3 of the 1991 NBA Finals, so what did the Bulls do? Give the ball to Jordan.

His Airness took it the length of the floor—which would never happen today with only 10.9 seconds remaining—and pulled up for a shot to tie the game.

At first glance, it looks easy. But it wasn't. Not even close. The 7'1" Vlade Divac nearly blocked it. 

You try hitting that shot, even just for fun. Tell me how it turns out.

Grade: A-

1993 NBA Playoffs vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

Ehlo and the Cavs just couldn't catch a break.

Chicago and Cleveland were tied at 101 points apiece with only 18.5 seconds to play in Game 4 of the 1993 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Jordan got the ball with around seven seconds remaining.

After being nearly stripped, he faded and drained the game/series-winner over two Cleveland defenders. Why? Because he's Jordan.

This one really makes you wonder: Were any of Jordan's clutch playoff shots even close to gimmes?

1996 NBA Playoffs vs. New York Knicks

Jordan loved to play at Madison Square Garden.

Down by three points inside a half-minute to play in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Jordan took one dribble to the right before drilling a fadeaway three over his defender to tie the game with just 19.4 seconds to play.

Contested threes are never good looks (unless you're Stephen Curry). Jordan's body was actually falling away from the basket, making this even more complicated a shot.

Do we think he should have tried to get closer? Absolutely. But he made it, so it doesn't matter.

The Knicks went on to win the game in overtime, but Jordan's shot is etched in the memories of New Yorkers everywhere. Trust me.

Grade: A-

1997 NBA Playoffs vs. Utah Jazz

MJ also liked to torment the Jazz.

Tied at 82 in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Jordan rose up like he had so many times before and knocked down a two as time expired to give Chicago a victory.

There's really no such thing as a "bad" or "easy" buzzer-beater, but compared to the others, this was child's play for Jordan.

Oh, and poor Bryon Russell.

Grade: B-

1998 NBA Playoffs vs. Utah Jazz

The final shot of Jordan's career was amazing. It would have been even more amazing if it was actually his final shot. But anyway...

Trailing by one, Jordan stole the ball with about 20 seconds to go. He dribbled up the floor, showing left. Instead, he went back to his right toward the middle of the floor. And then he changed directions again, crossing over to his left hand and pulling his body back in the process.

Jordan's defender fell, and the rest is history. He gave the Bulls a one-point lead with 5.2 seconds remaining and went on to win his sixth and final NBA championship.

Like I said, poor Bryon Russell.

Grade: A+

LeBron James' Makes

2006 NBA Playoffs vs. Washington Wizards

Trailing 96-95 with just 23.4 seconds left in Game 3 of the first round, LeBron found himself with the ball in his hands. He walked it up the floor as the seconds ticked off the clock before getting into the paint, where a slew of defenders awaited.

Somehow, LeBron got that shot off. And somehow, it went in.

It was the first postseason game-winner of his career. What a way to usher himself into the playoffs.

Grade: A+

2006 NBA Playoffs vs. Washington Wizards

Cleveland was down by one with just 3.6 seconds remaining in Game 5 of the first round when LeBron went beast mode.

He caught the ball on the weak side, dribbled into about four Wizards and still managed to finish at the rim to give the Cavs the lead with just 0.9 seconds to play.

This appears to be a much easier look than Jordan ever got, and to an extent, it was. LeBron still had to make his way out from under the basket and convert in traffic, though. That he was able to find enough space to do so in just 3.6 seconds is incredible.

Grade: B+

2007 NBA Playoffs vs. Detroit Pistons

Let's go two for the money again, shall we?

In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs were down two with just 22.9 seconds left on the clock. LeBron walked the ball up the floor and went right at Tayshaun Prince. He got the first step and was able to lay the ball in for an easy two with 9.5 seconds to play.

I say "easy," because that's really what this was. The pressure was real; Prince's defense was not.

Grade: B-

There were just over 11 seconds to play in this double-overtime thriller when LeBron took Chauncey Billups and the rest of the Pistons to school.

James dribbled his way into the paint and hit a go-ahead layup with under three seconds remaining to lock up a Game 5 victory for his Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The finish wasn't what was impressive. It was how James got there. He split four defenders, cutting his way through Billups, Richard Hamilton, Jason Maxiell and Prince. So while the look was easy, the work he did to get it wasn't simple at all.

Grade: B

2009 NBA Playoffs vs. Orlando Magic

This was easily my favorite of LeBron's.

Cleveland trailed by two in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals with just one second left on the clock. LeBron caught the inbound pass and drilled a deep three to give the Cavs a one-point victory.

Why so impressive? Because this wasn't the 2012-13 campaign when LeBron knocked down over 40 percent of his treys. This was the 2009 playoffs, when he was converting on just a third of his shots from downtown.

LeBron barely had time to catch the ball and his body wasn't even squared to the basket, yet he still nailed it.

Absolutely sensational.

Grade: A+

2013 NBA Playoffs vs. Indiana Pacers

You're getting double your money's worth again.

Tied at 99 in overtime, LeBron took the ball into the paint and would not be denied. He put in a layup to give the Heat a two-point lead with 10.8 seconds left.

Layups are rarely ever impressive, but LeBron survived a reach-in by David West and perhaps a head-tap by George Hill to get the job done.

No, it wasn't especially difficult. Compared to what you're about to see, though, it most certainly was.

Grade: B-

This is still fresh in our minds (I hope).

Miami was trailing the Pacers by one with just 2.2 seconds to play. Paul George cheated to his left and LeBron went left upon catching the inbounds. He reached the basket completely unimpeded to lift the Heat to a victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

What LeBron did here took great instincts. He knew exactly where to go and how much time he had to get there. But this was underwhelming. It was as if the Pacers wanted him to score. With Roy Hibbert—their best shot-blocker—sitting on the bench, I'm not entirely convinced they didn't.

Nothing against LeBron here, but we've seen better—especially from him.

Grade: C+

Who Has Hit the More Difficult Clutch Shots in the Playoffs?

There really isn't a question.

Most of LeBron's looks came right at the rim, while Jordan predominately buried jumpers. One could argue Jordan settled for those jumpers—and they'd be correct for the most part—but he still had to hit them. And he did.

This isn't to say that LeBron's clutch makes aren't clutch or even impressive enough. They are. Jordan's were just better. Some of them—the ones that came in the NBA Finals—meant more to his team's postseason cause, too.

Appreciate what we're currently bearing witness to. LeBron is tearing it up; he's putting on a show. Just remember that there was someone who did exactly what he was doing not too long ago.

And did it even better.

*All stats from this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, and unless otherwise attributed.