On LeBron James in the Clutch

LeBron James
Photo Credit: Scott Halleran

“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.

For example, James’ Houston performance, possession by possession:

If anything has remained true of the HEAT’s late-game execution over the past couple of seasons, it’s that they will attack mismatches at every opportunity, creating them either in transition or with quick pick-and-rolls. Here, James runs off a James Harden miss and gets picked up by Jeremy Lin, presenting the sort of isolation opportunity that will always suffice.

The spacing isn’t perfect, but James attacks Lin, taking him to the rim, drawing a second defender and contact. James doesn’t get the whistle, but it’s a situation where he can reasonably expect to either draw a foul or get a shot at the rim. He was likely to produce a positive result, but this time it doesn’t play out in his favor.

Then James picks up the baton and goes maestro.

On the next possession, with Miami down seven – the perfect time for hero ball – James doesn’t even bring the ball up. Instead, he runs to the corner and lets the play develop, knowing that shortly he’ll receive a pair of screens from Ray Allen and Chris Bosh. Soon enough, James has the ball at the top of the key and Bosh is wheeling around after the first screen to set a second one for James.

James makes a slight movement, Bosh’s defender overreacts and James threads the needle.

That’s a fifteen-second possession and after Allen initially gave up the ball, the ball hit the ground three times – twice on Shane Battier’s dribbles and once on James’ pass. Nothing flashy here, but how much flash do you need when a teammate gets a dunk attempt? James simply takes advantage of what the defense offers up, here and on the next possession:

If it worked once, why mess with a good thing? Again, James waits for the defense to take the smallest step toward him, sees that Bosh is diving to the rim and finds the most economical way to get him the ball.

Next time down, James is back in attack mode, going baseline on Chandler Parsons and finding Ray Allen in his most efficient spot on the floor, the left corner – likely a bit of a set play given Battier’s back-screen for Allen. The pass is slightly off with Parsons sliding well with James, but James makes the smart pass. A younger, more stubborn player might begin that drive already having made the decision to shoot at the rim no matter the cost, but when James gets cut off and sees Allen floating freely to the corner, he makes the play.

To this point, James has only taken the one shot when mismatched with Lin, but effectively created seven-points worth of open opportunities. He’s dominating by creating, until the shot-clock is winding down and his team needs him to take a shot from here:

Which James does, and he makes, just because he can.

Now Miami is down one with about 90 seconds to play. James waits out a pick-and-roll with Bosh, sees a driving lane and attacks, getting by Lin’s help – leaving Allen open on the wing like Corey Brewer last week – and drawing the foul. He makes 3-of-4 at the stripe, getting fouled on a defensive rebound at the other end, and Miami is down one with the shot-clock turned off.

Back to the pick-and-roll:

This is not the work of a player struggling under pressure. Some players will rush through this pick-and-roll, others will hold the ball on the perimeter too long and forget about the shot clock, but James probes and bides his time. He lunges once and retreats when Carlos Delfino counteracts, then waits for Bosh to navigate his way to the proper screening angle. Once Bosh is there, James is off, only one player between him and the basket.

Again, nothing pretty here, but counting the assist to Bosh and the pass that led to Bosh’s free-throws, James just produced 12 points in the final five minutes. 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.

Statistical supports for this article provided by NBA.com