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What Makes LeBron James the Ultimate NBA Playoff Closer?

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IOctober 8, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James plays against the Miami Heat during the second half in Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Think the Miami Heat have a chance to erase their 3-1 deficit to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2020 NBA Finals?

Think again. And consider the history of Closeout LeBron.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, LeBron James has a 79.2 win percentage in 48 closeout games. That is the best for any player who has played at least 25 closeout games. He only lost one such game in his four playoff runs with the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2014 to 2018.

To put this into context, Michael Jordan was 30-13, Kobe Bryant was 32-16 and Tim Duncan was 35-14 in closeout games. In addition to James' 38-10 record, he has never lost a Finals game when he had a chance to end the series—he is 3-0 in those opportunities. 

We could reel off a thousand cliches about LeBron's killer instinct, but what really changes for him on the court in these games?

Historically, James has always risen to the occasion. In his first career Finals closeout chance in 2012, with the Heat up 3-1 against a Kevin Durant-led Oklahoma City Thunder team, James had a 26-point, 11-rebound, 13-assist triple-double to put the Thunder away. Even though Oklahoma City kept him below his 29.3-point average to that point in the series, he totaled more than double the assists he had been averaging.

The following year, James delivered a masterful performance against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 as Miami overcame a 3-2 deficit for his second title in as many years. His line from that game was 37 points and 12 rebounds. In the six prior games in the series, the Spurs held James to 23.3 points.

But let's go beyond the individual stats. The Heat's defensive rating with James saw a dramatic improvement in Game 7. In Games 1-6, their defensive rating was 109.4 with him on the court. But in Game 7, it dropped to 95.3.

James' next chance in a Finals clincher came against the 73-win Golden State Warriors in another Game 7 match in 2016. He turned in an iconic performance again, punctuating it with "the block" on Andre Iguodala. While his scoring dipped below his average for the series, he finished with another triple-double with 27 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds plus three blocks. 

The Cavs' defensive rating with James on the court for Game 7 was 97.7, an improvement from 105.2 in the previous six games. 

This year's Lakers haven't been pushed beyond five games in their three previous playoff series. But in each of these Game 5s, James has put on a brilliant performance.

Against the plucky Portland Trail Blazers, he dropped his second triple-double and went from averaging 25.3 points in the first four games to erupting for 36 points as well as 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

James again elevated his game when presented with the chance to eliminate James Harden and the Houston Rockets in the conference semifinals. He controlled Game 5 from the beginning, increasing his usage rate from 29.6 in the series to 40.9. In addition to his usage rate increase, he brought his defense. The Lakers' defensive rating with James on the court improved from 106.3 in the first four games to 98.4 in Game 5.

James showed his killer instinct in the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets. In the first four games of the series, he averaged 24.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 8.8 assists.

But once the Lakers were up 3-1, James transformed into that shark yet again. He exploded for 38 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists with a usage rate increase to 33.3 and a defensive rate improvement of 9.3.

In the first four games of each series combined, James has put up good numbers. But when it comes time to send other teams packing, he goes nuclear.

In the 12-game sample of non-closeout games before the Finals this year, he has averaged 24.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists and shot 32.8 percent from three. 

In the three Game 5s for those series, he has put up 34.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 9.0 assists and shot 42.1 percent from three with a sub-100 defensive rating when he is on the court.

The numbers are amazing, but the biggest change for James in these closeout games is his mindset. After finishing off the Nuggets in Game 5, he said: "I've always had the mindset that in a closeout game for me personally, I'm just as desperate as the team that we are trying to close out. I don't want to play another game."

James continued: "I want to be just as desperate as my opponent, just as desperate as the other team, the player that I'm lined up against, the coaching staff that's on the other side. It's just who I am. It's just a mindset I'm able to link into at that very moment."

That desperation pushes James to be much more aggressive. It is why he went from averaging 15.3 shots to 19 in Game 5 against Portland. It is why early in Game 5 against Houston, he had 11 first-quarter points, nearly double his 6.8 from the previous four games. It is why he took 25 shots to eliminate Denver in Game 5 after averaging 18.

James has no interest in giving a dying team another chance.

In the Finals, he has averaged 27.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 8.5 assists and shot 36.4 percent from three. The Lakers' defensive rating with him on the court is 110.9.

If history has told us anything, expect James to take care of business against the Heat.


Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.

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