CLEVELAND — Time typically heals wounds, but time has a busy schedule and some blind spots, and soreness tends to linger even after the stitches. So, when LeBron James was asked how long it's typically taken to get over a playoff series, he greeted the question with laughter.
"I haven't gotten over the seven ones I lost," James told Bleacher Report during an interview preceding the 10th postseason of his 12-year NBA career. "I, I haven't gotten over them. And I probably won't ever get over them."
So he still recalls specific sequences from each of them: the 2006 second-round series against the Pistons, the 2007 NBA Finals against the Spurs, the 2008 second-round series against the Celtics, the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals against the Magic, the 2010 second-round series against the Celtics, the 2011 NBA Finals against the Mavericks and the 2014 NBA Finals against the Spurs?
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," James said. "And most of them, out of the seven, we had a chance to win. Some of them we didn't, obviously. The (2007) series in the Finals against the Spurs, that series, we didn't have a chance."
That was the only time his team has been swept in four games.
"But there were a lot of them that we had a chance to win, and a play here, a play there, my performance here, my performance there, could have changed the outcome," James said.
That's because the other series, in chronological order, went seven, seven, six, six, six and five games, respectively, before James' team, the Cavaliers five times (including 2007) and the Heat twice, ultimately succumbed. Of course, it should be noted that there have been 22 series in which James' performance played a primary role in a positive outcome.
"That's pretty cool," James said, when told of that 22-7 series record, one which compares favorably to closest contemporaries Carmelo Anthony (3-10), Chris Paul (3-6), Kevin Durant (8-5) and even Dwyane Wade (21-7). It's even in the conversation with Larry Bird, whose Celtics teams went 22-9 in series in which he appeared, though James would need to win the next couple of championships to come close to Magic Johnson (32-8) and Michael Jordan (30-7).
James' overall record in playoff games is better than generally acknowledged too: 101-57 (.638), whereas Jordan, after a 1-9 start, finished with a 119-60 postseason record (.665).
Still, it's the losses that stick with you, that drive you.
That's true even if your scoring average in series lost (26.8) isn't all that different from that in series won (28.4).
"They're all different," James said. "But I think every last playoff series for me is a learning experience, especially in my younger days. But some of them was even in my later days, like my first year in Miami (against Dallas), those playoff series, I learned so much from that, all the way to the last one that I lost (against San Antonio), on how to improve my game. So it's either ways I can improve my game—which is the most important thing. If I don't play well in a series, I critique that whole series and I look what I was doing, what I could have done. And if there's something that I couldn't do well in that series, I work on it all summer. And I don't know, I just approach it that way. I take it very seriously. Like I say, I'm a totally different person in the playoffs."
He's a totally different person now than he was for the first one back in 2006, or 2007 or even 2011.
"He is an individual that needed to continue to work at becoming who he is today," said Bruce Bowen, who drew the defensive assignment for the Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals. "It just didn't happen overnight for him. He had to go through the lows before he could truly experience the highs, as far as a championship-caliber player."
Still, let's look back at what led to those lows and what, if anything, may still apply.
Heard of The Jordan Rules? It was a book that documented Jordan’s first championship season (1990-1991), a key aspect being Jordan’s quest to overcome the nemesis “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons. A team that had, in effect, its own rules that guided how it managed the game’s most gifted player.
There are no LeBron Rules, per se, at least not so clearly characterized and defined. Still, certain factors have tended to be present, from a stubborn primary defender to a mobile and disciplined back line to, with one notable exception, a subpar supporting cast. And even then, that's only been sufficient seven times.
DETROIT KNOCK CITY
For Tayshaun Prince, the two series against LeBron James long ago began to blend together.
And, like most NBA observers, the longtime NBA small forward tends to more clearly remember the second one, the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals that his Pistons lost in six, the one that featured James scoring the final 25 points of a double-overtime Game 5, than he recalls the 2006 second-round series that ended with the Pistons squeezing the life out of the callow Cavaliers, 79-61, in a deciding seventh game.
Still, it's not as if the Cavaliers' offensive approach changed all that much.
"It was pretty much LeBron James pick-and-roll 80 percent of the time, put three shooters out there, spread us out, and just let him attack coming off pick-and-rolls," Prince said. "He turns the corner, there's no real good chance you get back out in front of him, especially at that point of his career."
When he wasn't nearly as efficient as he is now, but, at age 22, even more electric.
"That's what made it that so special how he was playing, because he was still putting up those crazy type of numbers without knocking down a lot of perimeter shots," Prince said. "A lot of times, it was just a putting his head down, 'I'm stronger, faster, more athletic, I'm getting to the rim'-type of deal."
Yet, if one team at that time was reasonably equipped to counter James' assaults—those aided by the screens of Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas—it was those 2006 Pistons. They not only had a proven long-limbed primary defender in Prince and a commitment to packing the paint, but they also had a trio of mobile bigs in Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess capable of bumping, blitzing and, for brief periods, switching. Naturally, Prince and the Pistons were concerned about doubling James too much because "he throws the ball on a string, gets it all over the place. So you're faced with a lot of different dilemmas."
But Prince said, when it comes to James, it's best to attempt to address one.
"Just figure out, I'm taking this away," Prince said. "And if you beat me the other way, that's it! I'm taking my chances. But I'm not going to sit here and watch film on this guy, this might work this game. You're just going to keep walking off the court with an L. That's just how it works."
The Pistons were convinced of one thing: Whatever pick-and-roll coverage they chose, they needed to keep sight of James' shooters and limit their open opportunities, even if that frequently meant leaving him to shoot.
"And if he beats you with 50 [points] and hits 10 jumpers, you're OK with that, you live with it," Prince said. "Because you're not stopping a full head of steam guy like that—coming off pick-and-rolls, putting so much pressure on your bigs, he's shooting 16 free throws and putting your whole team in foul trouble.
"That's when you are going to definitely lose against him. If he gets in that paint all night long, you have no chance. Just no chance..."
In that 2006 series, there's no question the Pistons' ploys worked. James averaged a respectable 44.2 percent shooting along with 26.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists in 45.9 minutes, but his free-throw attempts were down (7.9 per game after a career-best 10.3 in the regular season), and he made just 26.8 percent of his jump shots.
And James' teammates did not get adequately involved: James attempted nearly as many field goals as his next three highest-scoring teammates (Ilgauskas, Ronald Murray and Donyell Marshall) combined, while Ilgauskas was second on the Cavaliers with just 10.9 points per game.
"Every series has challenged me, for sure," James said. "I knew, going against Detroit in the playoffs, I had to get mentally stronger. I wasn't mentally strong enough. And I knew in order to beat them, that mentally I had to be strong. So every experience has its own perk."
He would rally from that defeat against Detroit the following postseason, partly because of the Pistons' personnel changes: They lost Ben Wallace in free agency, replacing him with the past-prime Chris Webber and Dale Davis and the raw Jason Maxiell.
"Our pick-and-roll coverage wasn't as good," Prince said.
Prince also believes that, while James' 25-point Game 5 outburst defines the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons' real problem was waiting too long to control the complementary cast, with six other Cavaliers averaging at least seven points. In Game 6, as James went 3-of-11, Gibson scored 31 to eliminate Detroit.
"It was too late in the series where we decided, let's just try to let LeBron do what he does, and take everyone else away," Prince said. "Because they already had a rhythm and a momentum in the series."
So the Cavaliers earned the right to play in the 2007 NBA Finals, where the Spurs showed how far James and his teammates still had to go.
FIRST TIME AT THE RODEO
Bruce Bowen's wife gave birth to his second son during the 2007 NBA Finals, the same series in which James' second son was born.
Perhaps that's why this analogy came to mind, when describing his assignment at the time.
"On the court, he was an infant," said Bowen, now an ESPN analyst. "You could smell the Similac on his breath, when it comes to the playoffs and the Finals."
The Spurs, led by a coach, Gregg Popovich, with three championships in the previous eight years, had a formula to bottle him up. That started with a heavy dose of Bowen, a player whom, to this day, former teammate Manu Ginobili lovingly labels "really a pain in the ass."
"Bruce was just incredible against everybody," said Ginobili. "LeBron wasn't the best scorer back then. He was a great player, of course, but he wasn't the biggest threat. Bruce was so used to going at everybody and learning what their comfort zones were. I've seen him do incredible things, and against LeBron at that time he also did a great job."
Bowen was a known NBA agitator, one who had learned in many battles with Kobe Bryant that it was best if the superstar made it personal, as in "I'm gonna destroy Bruce." That could keep role players from getting a rhythm. And the Cavaliers' role players needed help in 2007.
"You look at that group that he got to the Finals with, it was a group that was all him," Bowen said.
As NBA TV analyst Brent Barry, then a 2007 Spurs rotation player, put it: "The general sense around the league at that time was that Cleveland was just kind of not ready.
"What we felt like as a team was that LeBron, as great as he was against Detroit to get into that series, really wasn't at an age in terms of the maturity of his game where he would be ready to handle what it is that we were capable of doing."
Bowen wasn't the only obstacle, though Barry referred to him as a "a splinter under your skin," an "unbelievable perimeter defender, incredibly active, great feet, great hands, a great ability to push and shove and get off of guys—even though they're fouls, getting away with it."
The scheme, and the support, also contributed to James shooting 35.6 percent while averaging 22 points. The scheme was designed to keep James on one side, cut down on his pick-and-roll pairings with Varejao up top, not allow him to pick San Antonio apart with his passing (Bowen considered James' court vision his greatest strength) and all the while dare him to do something else.
"With that particular team, if LeBron was gonna shoot jump shots, that's fantastic for us," Bowen said. "Not that he couldn't, but if he is taking the majority of the shots, how are other guys gonna get involved?"
James made just 10 of his 56 jump shots, or 17.9 percent, and had only two dunks in four games. Nor did he elevate others, taking more shots than the total of the next two highest-scoring Cavaliers, Drew Gooden (12.8 points per game) and Gibson (10.8 points per game).
Even when James beat Bowen, he encountered Tim Duncan at peak mobility. And sometimes, someone else.
"Two Mack trucks parked there, that you're not gonna get through," Barry said. "Knowing what you have behind you as a perimeter defender can make you feel like you can do the job. And, in Bruce's case, what he had behind him was something you trust.
"The way that we had activity behind what Bruce was doing allowed Bruce to be a lot more pesky on the perimeter. ... He could shuffle and filter and guide players at that time into areas on the floor where the defense behind was so good."
James nodded at the memory of the Spurs' 2007 strategy, particularly on pick-and-rolls.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," James said. "All the way under. Yeah. Yeah. All the way under. And from that point, I knew from losing the Finals then, I knew I had to work on my game to get my jump shot better."
Barry knew the Spurs were fortunate. He doesn't believe James was frightened by the stakes ("I'll never say that about that guy; he'll go down as one of the top five players of all time") but does suspect "the gravity of the situation" may have been too much.
"I just felt like, man, we're just catching this guy at the right time," Barry said. "I remember talking to Timmy about it, and just having the sense, we don't want to play this guy the next three or four years. And it ended up being up seven years later, and LeBron got it back. It was the fact that, thank goodness, we're getting on this freshman when we're seniors."
THE BOSTON MARATHONS
There's much mythology about the rivalry between LeBron James and Paul Pierce, and even now, it couldn't be much closer, with James holding a 34-33 record in their regular-season and playoff meetings. Yet the reality is that others have often intruded on their face-to-face encounters.
Such was the case in the 2008 and 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals, series in which James Posey and then Tony Allen, respectively, repeatedly relieved Pierce of James duty. Boston won the series in seven and six games, respectively. Those series speak to another essential in getting past James in the playoffs: An opponent better have more than one guy unafraid to guard him.
That doesn't necessarily mean stopping him. James posted strong averages in both series (26.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 7.6 assists in 2008, and 26.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.2 assists in 2010). But he did so at less than ideal efficiency (35.5 percent shooting in 2008 and 44.7 percent in 2010).
Posey, now a Cavaliers assistant, can't share all his secrets. Yet he did speak of recognizing his role on the 2008 team, one on which Pierce was counted upon as a primary scorer: not letting James wear out Pierce.
So Posey offered to chase James—at least until crunch time, when Pierce would step up.
Posey says that to deal "with a guy with just the ultimate green light," he tried to play the role of "a little muscle."
"Just pestering him with or without the ball, let him know I was there, a little physical," Posey said. "Just something to get him thinking about me, and let him know I'm going to be there this entire game."
...from the backcourt to the paint, especially when James brought the ball up.
"So he's like, 'I got to deal with this m----------r the whole game?'" Posey said. "He wasn't a great shooter, so therefore, I could give him a step or two, with a late contest for his jump shot. And pick-and-rolls, just make sure I was very aggressive with him. If anything, no dunks, no layups."
Even if it meant a whistle.
"I'm fouling him hard," Posey said. "I've got six, and I'm using them. ... He's going to the basket, you foul him, he falls down, he got to pick himself up. Now he's thinking, like, 'Damn, I got to quit going to the basket.'"
Posey was gone in 2010, but the Celtics had someone ready as a Pierce stand-in. That was Allen, who, while shorter, had the same type of attitude.
Allen was often defending James for an entire quarter. Now with the Memphis Grizzlies, Allen recently said the trick was "just not getting discouraged when he gets it going."
"I had Kevin Garnett behind me," Allen said. "I had Paul Pierce gassing me up, and Kevin Garnett gassing me up, and (Rajon) Rondo in my ear, causing havoc with those steals, playing the passing lanes. It kind of frustrated (James)."
He had Kendrick Perkins too, which Perkins—now James' Cavaliers teammate—was quick to note, with a smile, when asked about the 2010 series. Perkins praised Allen as "one of the better lockdown defenders we got in the league, for sure. He knows how to psych you out, he knows how to use his quickness and if you're taller than him but not stronger than him, he knows how to use it."
Allen and Posey knew how to use their back-line support, too.
"Yeah, they did," James said. "And that helps a lot. ... KG and Perk did a great job of communicating behind (Allen). I've always said, it's not the individual battle with me, it's always the second- or third-tier defense that's going to define what type of impact I can make on the game."
As Perkins recalled, "You had a lot of veterans on the team that knew their position. You didn't have to teach as you were going. Guys knew, guys locked in."
Allen said, "You've got to have five guys that collectively got their antennas up for LeBron James."
That was especially true then, in his view, since the Cavaliers still didn't have anyone else who could do much damage. In both the 2008 and 2010 series, James was flanked by only one fellow starter (Delonte West and then Mo Williams) under age 30. No one in either series, other than James, averaged as many as 13.5 points per game, and that was 37-year-old Shaquille O'Neal, who averaged just 23.4 minutes.
"Obviously you are going to wear him down if you stay on him throughout the whole game," Allen said. "You want to ultimately put a lot of wear and tear on him to make him make a lot of those crazy shots, and make him do it for a period of time throughout the game. Because you feel in the fourth quarter, he's fatigued. And whenever you get that sense out of a superstar, you put a lot of pressure on the other guys."
Those guys weren't up to it, not in 2008 and not in 2010.
"He got his numbers, but just one guy can't do it all," Allen said.
That was actually most evident in the postseason between.
ELIMINATED AT THE EXTREMES
It's a mistake to make every series defeat just about James or his team. When he's been beaten, it hasn't been by schleps on the other side.
None of the seven teams he lost to entered the playoffs with any worse than a 50-32 record; they combined for a regular-season mark of 506-158. All seven included multiple multi-time All-Stars.
"Everybody thought we were going to lose, and I sat down with the team. I was like, 'Man, they're really going to count us out? Let's go out and dog these boys and show them who we are. Let's get to the Finals,'" Dwight Howard recently said, recalling Orlando's 2009 Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavaliers. "The game plan was just to dominate, inside out. Bust their ass, that was the game plan. That was the whole plan.
Everybody counted us out, and I can remember just sitting with the guys and just going off like, 'Man, they already got the LeBron and Kobe puppets' (for a Cavaliers-Lakers NBA Finals). That's when the puppet thing was big [in Nike commercials], and I was hot. I went in and made my own puppet because I was like, 'No, we're going to win, we're going to be in the Finals.' And my whole team felt the same way."
It should be noted, of course, that James absolutely incinerated the Magic in defeat.
"My numbers were ridiculous," James said, laughing. "And they called Mickael Pietrus the LeBron stopper at the time, too. I averaged like, 40."
He averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists against the Magic, while shooting 48.7 percent, as second-leading scorer Mo Williams averaged 18.3 points on 37.1 percent shooting.
And the Cavs lost in six games.
While Orlando's "bust their ass" attitude may have played a part, so did some strategy. Stan Van Gundy, then the Magic coach, has never believed in double-teaming James much because "of all the great scorers in the league, he's the best passer," and "he can hurt you as much or more with the pass as he can with the shot."
So the Magic tried singling him with everyone from Pietrus to Rashard Lewis to Hedo Turkoglu, while focusing on limiting attacks and free throws, and holding out hope that, as Van Gundy put it, "it's not a night he's lighting up every jump shot."
"The team he has now is a lot more talented around," Van Gundy acknowledged recently, when speaking of the current Cavaliers, "so it was easier to do that then."
That common theme, in James' first five playoff series defeats, might make it easier to understand why James left the Cavaliers for the Heat in 2010. He needed more help.
And, in the 2010-11 season, he typically got it from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. That's what makes the 2011 NBA Finals against the Mavericks stand out as an anomaly among James' 29 playoff series. It was the only time that he didn't average the most shots and points on his team; he was third in both categories (at 15.0 and 17.8, respectively) to Wade and Bosh.
And while the media in 2011 focused largely on James' alleged psychological frailty, that diminished the role Dallas played.
"I think we had a great team," Dirk Nowitzki said. "We had a veteran team that fought for each other. We had a smart team, with J-Kidd and (Shawn) Marion and Tyson (Chandler). We just had a bunch of veterans that were ripe to win it.
"The only way to win was to be persistent that series. We were almost down 2-0. Came back in that second game—we were down 15 with a few minutes to go—so we got a little lucky there. They had a heck of a team. We might have caught them at the right time, that first year, when they hadn't been through the battles yet."
The Mavericks might have had the ideal roster in the sense that, even with Caron Butler unavailable due to a knee injury, they still had a variety of options in man-to-man and in pick-and-roll coverage.
"He's so great, you've got to mix it up," Nowitzki said.
"The key is having multiple defenders that can give him different looks defensively," said Jason Terry, now a Houston Rocket. "Though he has very high basketball IQ, it's hard to process three or four different looks throughout the course of a game or even a series. And I thought with Dallas, we had Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, DeShawn Stevenson, guys who can defend him or give him different looks."
Rick Carlisle started with Stevenson because that's what Stevenson, who long fancied himself a James irritant, insisted.
"He had so much history with (James) that he wanted to guard him," said Butler, now with the Detroit Pistons. "When we went through the game plan, they were like 'Shawn (Marion), we want you to guard him.' DeShawn was like, 'No, I got him.'"
Everyone assigned—even Kidd and briefly Peja Stojakovic—understood the objective: Hassle and bump him early, then back off.
"What we did was we dropped into a 1-3-1 zone for the most part of the game," Butler said, "and just try to force him to take jump shots. Kind of take the decision-making out of it. We didn't want him to facilitate."
Butler had seen firsthand, when losing to James in the postseason with Washington, how, as great a scorer as James is, "his true gift and his niche is to make other guys better." So he kept telling teammates, "zone him, make him score, make him beat us with the jump shot. And, by Game 5, particularly Game 6 when we won it, it got overwhelming for him."
Meanwhile, the Mavericks tried to add to the pressures James was feeling from the media and public, with plenty of talking on the court and off.
"I think he was at a point where he was questioning, and then he was looking," said Butler. "And when we were playing, you could see him looking for answers sometimes. And we were like, 'Yeah, we got to keep him uncomfortable.'"
From that discomfort, however, James and the Heat would become more dominant, reaching three more Finals and winning two.
"That series helped him even get better again," Nowitzki said. "He's been incredible after that series. He's been the best player on the planet."
"It's amazing watching him mature over the years, he's gotten to the point where he is just so dominant in so many aspects of the game," Butler said. "And now he can take over facilitating. He draws so much attention. He's so aware of it. He knows the timing of when to score, when to get a guy a shot. He knows the game. You can just watch him, and it's just different."
Others, from afar, also used the Dallas setback as the delineator. Posey knew James was ready to be a champion when James said, prior to the 2012 postseason, that he was dropping out of social media.
"I knew he was locked in," Posey said. "Before that, he was just doing too much, and having to go out and play. But once he cut that (bleep) out, I knew he was locked in."
"The crazy thing is, that series they lost to Dallas, I think he was averaging 18, nine and eight [sic], and everybody said he'd had a horrible series," Prince said about James, who actually averaged 18, seven and seven. "But I think the criticism that he got for that made him mentally tougher more than anything."
So what did James learn specifically from his Dallas disappointment?
He puts it in purely basketball terms.
"They kept me out of transition and kept three guys in the paint, and I knew I needed to work on my post game to get closer to the basket," James said. "So that's when I put that into play."
SPURS MAKE IT SEVEN
By the time San Antonio played James for the 2013 title, he was anything but the NBA infant Bruce Bowen had bothered in 2007. He was a champion, with a more diverse game, a stronger mindset and better teammates than he had when the three Spurs holdovers (Ginobili, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan) swept those NBA Finals.
Ginobili said the defensive concept was generally similar ("trying not to give him easy dunks, and-1s and open court; squeeze the paint and make him pass the ball and then contest") but with a tweak: "He had become a much better shooter, so you got to be worried about that too. You just can't let him shoot. Back then (in 2007), if he shot 20 open threes, we basically didn't care."
What's largely forgotten now, though, is that James didn't really exploit the Spurs from the outside in the first five games of the 2013 Finals and, even while catching fire in Games 6 and 7, still made just 35.2 percent of his jump shots overall. Yet the Heat won that series and would lose the 2014 Finals in five games, even as James converted his jumpers at a ridiculous 51.8 percent rate.
And, while James' untimely bout with cramps may have cost the Heat the opening game, the rest of the 2014 Finals—the seventh series defeat of his career—merely served to show that, sometimes, it's not about him as much as the others on the court.
The Spurs, with their blistering ball and body movement, played better than any opponent James had faced. And James' Heat teammates? Well, they suddenly, stunningly looked like his old inadequate Cavaliers cast, not offering ample assistance. James averaged 28.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 2014 while shooting 57.1 percent. He did so while guarded by Kawhi Leonard, someone for whom Brent Barry has coined the phrase "Kawhiian Island" for his ability to athletically "man up" due to his size and range without anywhere near as much back-end support as Bowen had in 2007. But Wade (15.2) and Bosh (14.0) both fell well below their seasonal scoring averages.
"I think he played some of his best basketball in (2014)," said Spurs guard Danny Green. "I think he played even better as an individual than the year before (when Miami won). Which is weird, but they had a different lineup, different guys playing well, different guys playing out of position. I think the year before, they had more shooters.
"Our style of play offensively (in 2014), it gave them some tough problems: how we moved the ball, which made it hard for them defensively, which kind of wore on them a little bit. D-Wade fighting injuries and being a year older, them being in the Finals four years in a row, I'm sure wore on them."
Now James again wears Cavaliers colors and can wear two rings if he chooses. He also wears seven scars, but those scars seem to have served him well.
So, now, what's the strategy?
James Posey, a former adversary turned ally, keeps it simple.
"Now, it's just say your prayers and get some rest," Posey said. "…Say your prayers and get some rest."