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LeBron James was terrible.
In what might have been James’ worst performance since his fourth game as an 18-year-old rookie, the Chosen One stunk up the Cavaliers’ nationally-televised Home Opener – going 2-for-11 from the floor with as many fouls as assists and as many turnovers as rebounds. A stunned crowd watched Dallas dissect the Eastern Conference Champs, 92-74.
That was the last break that LeBron would give the league.
Two nights later, in a dramatic comeback win over New York, LeBron exploded for 45 points, seven boards and seven dimes – setting in motion one of the most prolific individual seasons in recent memory; certainly the greatest ever by a Cavalier.
Following last year’s loss in the NBA Finals and the birth of his second son, LeBron’s whirlwind off-season saw him strike Gold for Team USA in Las Vegas, steal the show on “Saturday Night Live” in New York, and cement his status as a global icon in Shanghai.
Beyond the limelight, however, LeBron was working exhaustively on his jumper with Cavaliers assistant, Chris Jent. And the man whose inside game had already been deemed “unstoppable” now had the long-distance stroke to go with it.
This season, he’s been the league’s wire-to-wire scoring leader and consistently stuffs the stat sheet with mind-boggling numbers. He is the face of the franchise and the face of the NBA. He is the team’s spiritual and emotional leader, and in five years has never publicly pointed a finger at a teammate, called out a coach or disrespected the franchise.
And most importantly, he’s got the Cavaliers poised for another postseason run at the Ring.
Since winning the Eastern Conference Championship – between a brutal schedule, contract holdouts, a huge trade and major injuries – the Cavaliers have proven true that “heavy is the head that wears the Crown.” Luckily, they have a young King strong enough to shoulder the load.
While most players were taking their mid-season break, James was winning his second All-Star Game MVP in the last three years. And on March 21st, LeBron became the leading scorer in franchise history – doing so in just 380 games. And as the regular season winds down, he now looks to become the first MVP in Cleveland Cavaliers history.
The odds are stacked against LeBron in this year’s MVP race. He’s going against a pair of stars from the uber-competitive West – Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. Both have led their teams to the top of the superior Conference. Head-to-head, LeBron is 0-2 against Paul, 2-0 against Bryant. In terms of sheer wins and losses, Kevin Garnett leads the pack, helping Boston to the league’s best mark – already topping the 60-win plateau.
But long odds are nothing new for LeBron and the Cavaliers. And, as we hope to illustrate, he’s not averse to staging a comeback in the darkness before dawn.
Those of us who watch his brilliance unfold every night already feel that LeBron James is the league's Most Valuable Player. Here are ten examples for those who don’t …
By the Numbers
In terms of hard-boiled numbers, James has had his best season in an already-brilliant career.
He is among the league leaders in almost every major category – including scoring average, where he leads the NBA at 30.2 ppg. With four games left in the regular season, James is tops in field goals made (768), second in attempts (1594) and in total points (2176).
Peppering the league’s top ten, James ranks second overall in triple-doubles (7), third in free throws attempted (738), third in minutes per game (40.4) fourth in free throws made (530), seventh in assists (7.3) and tenth in steals (1.84).
This year, he's scored 20 or more points in 49 straight games, has broken the 40-point plateau five times and gone for 50 twice. LeBron has turned in back-to-back triple-doubles – on consecutive days – on two separate occasions.
James has led the club in scoring 61 times, assists 60 times, rebounding 15 times, steals 33 times and blocked shots, 23 times.
Jan. 30 – at Portland
On January 30 at the Rose Garden, the Blazers led by 11 – 81-70 – with just over four minutes to play. If LeBron James was going to put the Cavaliers on his back and will them to another improbable victory, this was the time.
He did exactly that, scoring 11 of the Cavaliers’ next 14 points and stifling Portland’s Brandon Roy as the Wine and Gold went on a 14-3 run – capped by LeBron’s twisting reverse layup with 0.3 seconds remaining to win the game.
James outscored the entire Blazers team, 17-15, in the fourth quarter.
“I just live for the fourth quarter," James said, after sinking Chicago with a big final period on March 2nd. "When the games are close, that's when I like to do work.”
If one of the attributes of an MVP is to be clutch when it counts, this year LeBron has been without peer. James averages a league-high 9.0 points in the fourth quarter. He’s tallied double-figures 28 times and, on two occasions, has outscored an entire team by himself in the final period.
But James definitely didn’t limit his fourth-quarter magic to the offensive end. LeBron has become the Cavaliers’ toughest perimeter defender and routinely gets assigned the opponent’s best threat down the stretch. In the fourth quarter, he’s quashed the likes of Kevin Martin, Paul Pierce and Jason Richardson.
But no defensive performance punctuates his MVP argument like his two outings against Kobe Bryant.
In the December 20th win at The Q, he held Bryant to eight points in the second half. In the Cavaliers’ January 27th win in L.A., Kobe was 0-for-8 in the final four minutes and – with James checking him hard in the closing seconds – couldn’t get off a shot to tie the game. LeBron, on the other hand, scored 14 points in the fourth, including the Cavaliers' final six.
Jan. 6 – at Toronto
Toronto had built a 15-point second-half lead over the Cavaliers and LeBron struggled through the first three quarters, going 6-for-19 heading into the fourth. The entire time, he was being playfully chided by Chris Bosh’s girlfriend, seated courtside at the Air Canada Centre.
Whether this was James’ motivation or not, the sleeping giant was soon awakened as LeBron proceeded to set a franchise record with 24 points in the fourth quarter – going 8-for-10 from the field, including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc – and leading the Wine and Gold to the incredible 93-90 win.
Once again, LeBron handled the scoring load while doing a little bit of everything else – finishing two dimes short of triple-double with 11 boards and eight assists.
In 2007-08, the Cavaliers squad rarely resembled the one that took the Eastern Conference title just months earlier.
Cleveland’s two young international stars – Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic – missed significant time due to contract imbroglios and more than a month more each because of injuries. The rising star of last year’s postseason run – Daniel Gibson – was sidelined six weeks with a high ankle sprain.
Overall, the Cavaliers have lost a combined 166 player games due to injury and have utilized 20 different starting lineups. Adding more mystique to an already-uncertain lineup, on February 21st, Cleveland pulled off a massive 11-player trade that completely overhauled the team – including 40 percent of the starting lineup.
Through it all, LeBron’s tenacious play kept the Cavaliers in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and within striking distance of a 50-win season.
Feb. 22 – vs. Washington
After making a huge 11-player trade the day before, the Wine and Gold could only suit up a league-minimum eight players – (two, Billy Thomas and Kaniel Dickens, last-minute call-ups from the NBDL) – for a Friday night battle with the Washington Wizards.
LeBron James was unfazed by the long odds, and – in front of a frenzied sell-out crowd – was utterly amazing once more, finishing with 33 points, 15 boards and eight assists despite being double- and triple-teamed for the majority of the night.
LeBron was 11-for-20 from the floor and 9-for-14 from the stripe – including the game-tying and game-winning free throws with seven seconds to play.
Royalty in Exile
When LeBron sprained his left index finger late in the first half of a November 28th matchup in Detroit, the Cavaliers figured they would be able to tread water without their young superstar. After all, the resilient Wine and Gold had been 9-3 in games LeBron had missed due to injury.
Instead, the Cavaliers scored 31 points in the second half in that game against the Pistons, eventually losing by 35. Cleveland then proceeded to drop its next five games before James returned – along with Anderson Varejao and Larry Hughes – for a December 11th two-touchdown victory over Indiana.
Overall, LeBron missed six games due to injury in 2007-08 and the Cavaliers dropped each of those six decisions – two to the lowly Bobcats and Sonics.
If the mark of an MVP is that his team would be in dire straits without him, the Wine and Gold’s record with James in street clothes speaks for itself.
Jan. 27 – at L.A. Lakers
In a marquee Tinseltown matchup between two of the NBA’s top leading men, it was the young King who – for the fifth straight occasion – got the best of his closest rival for this year’s MVP award.
After beating L.A. just over one month earlier at The Q, the Cavaliers found themselves down by nine in their rematch in L.A. But as usual, LeBron led the Cavaliers charge, capping Cleveland’s comeback by scoring the final six points of the game and bottling up Bryant.
James finished with 41 points, nine boards, five assists and a pair of steals while holding Kobe to 1-for-8 shooting in the final four minutes.
LeBron James came into the NBA being compared to contemporary superstars like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
But after the numbers he’s posted in 2007-08, LeBron extended those comparisons to some of the game’s legendary performers throughout history like Earl Monroe, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry and Wilt Chamberlain. And sometimes, he put up numbers that had never been posted.
In a five-game span in late November – culminated by a 37-point, 12-board, 12-assist effort in a win over Toronto – LeBron averaged 39 points, 10 board and 9.4 assists per game, equaling numbers not seen since Oscar Robertson in 1960.
In a January 11th win over Charlotte, James became the first player in NBA history to ever post at least 31 points, 19 rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocks in a game.
And most recently, LeBron took bite out of the Big Apple – netting 50 points, 10 dimes and eight boards in a 14-point win over the Knicks. Those digits matched the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who accomplished the feat in 1975.
Finally – LeBron will finish the season averaging over 30 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists per game. That's been done by only two people in the history of the NBA: Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan.
March 3 – at N.Y. Knicks
After one period in the Mecca of Basketball – Madison Square Garden – LeBron had netted only two points. That was definitely the calm before the storm.
Over the final three quarters in New York, James would go on to score 48 more points – 18 in the second and 15 in the third and fourth.
With the Cavaliers clinging to a one-point lead – 99-98 – with just over four minutes to play, LeBron canned three straight three-pointers as part of an 11-1 run that iced the game and before an awestruck crowd at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
James’ performance – in which he added 10 assists, eight boards and four steals – was easily the best by a Cavalier ever against the Knicks.
It was LeBron's second-highest point total of the season.