“How did anybody ever question him, looking back on it, in big moments?”
That’s Miami HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra last night after watching LeBron James transcend the spiritual plane, scoring 32 points with eight points in the last five minutes, in beating the Houston Rockets, 113-110. And it’s a fair question to ask, considering all the accusations thinly veiled in the form of questions that have been lobbed James’ way over the past couple of years.
How did anybody question him when all the evidence we ever needed was right in front of our eyes?
We have to note upfront that we’re going to make some concessions to the narrative here, if only because there is no other way to properly address the idea of clutch. Choosing a small portion of a contest to act as proof of a person’s ability to perform under pressure has never been entirely logical, particularly given how pick-and-choosey most clutch crusaders can get with late-game possessions, but no matter how much we trumpet the importance of wire-to-wire efficiency, clutch is always going to play heavily into folklore.
So put aside your thoughts on the clutch factor for a few minutes. It’s important to many today, and it will factor heavily into the stories told tomorrow – that makes it worth addressing.
LeBron James has had two memorably bad playoff series. In 2010, the Cleveland Cavaliers were favored to beat the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and lost in six games. In 2011, James struggled with the masterful defensive schemes of the Dallas Mavericks and the HEAT lost in the NBA Finals. No matter what part of the world you were in, if you were talking about pressure situations, someone would inevitably bring up one of these two instances of James playing uncharacteristically poorly. It’s circumstantial evidence, but it’s not fabricated evidence. And in the middle of a casual conversation it could be difficult to find a suitable retort for these facts.
We’re not trying to have a casual conversation. It’s not up to any of us, no matter the volume of our voices, to decide what counts and what doesn’t. A case cannot be made simply on what we happen to, or choose to, remember. The jury considers all evidence.
And in this case, the evidence supports the argument that James might be the most clutch player in the league.
Using the standard clutch filters – the last five minutes of the game leading or trailing by no more than five points – in the 369 minutes of high-pressure basketball he has played with Miami, James leads the NBA with a player efficiency rating of 34.8, regular season and playoffs. We don’t need to name names here, but think of any player and James has been more efficient late in close games, and that’s using a metric that doesn’t fully factor in defensive talents that almost won him a Defensive Player of the Year award a season ago.
We won’t repeat the above numbers, but put plainly, late in close games James handles the ball a ton, hardly ever commits turnovers, shoots above the league average in close games, earns free-throws at an incredibly high-rate, creates shots for his teammates and, as we know from watching games, often defends the opponent’s best scorer. This should not be shocking, as any five-minute snapshot of a great player should generally reflect their impact on the floor, but for some, numbers like these are nothing more than hummingbirds flitting softly past their ears.
In some ways, this is understandable – not the ignorance of information part, but because James is clutch in a way that few players in the history of the league have been clutch. Basically, instead of going out of his way to assert his dominance over a late-game situation – pounding the ball needlessly at the top of the key, slowing the game down to size up his opponent and shooting jumpers off the dribble – James dominates the last five minutes in the same manner as the first 43.
. . .
Through eight games this season, the HEAT have now outscored opponents by 18 with James on the floor in the clutch, and he is scoring 160 points per 100 possessions during that time.
Is it sustainable? No. James isn’t going to hit 40-foot threes in huge spots every night, but nobody else is either. What you can count on with James is that he’ll make the right play at the right time, attacking the right angle or mismatch, getting his teammates to open spots on the floor or getting a shot off with the clock winding down.
And then he went and defended Harden on the final possession, contesting a three without fouling. It might not always be enough to have James atop the leaderboard statistically, but the way he approaches late-game possessions will always have him in the conversation among the elite.
It might not be cool, but it most certainly is clutch. And years from now, when all those questions about James have long since dissolved into the ether, you’ll be able to make it sound cool when you tell your kids.