When LeBron James torched the Detroit Pistons for 48 points in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, hitting 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 points, many called “King James” the best closer in the NBA.
But since that spectacular playoff run, which ended with an abrupt Finals sweep by the San Antonio Spurs, James has struggled in closing out playoff games.
At least that’s the perception, but is that perception unjust? Well, the numbers don’t lie, particularly in these playoffs.
On Thursday, for example, James tallied a triple double but again struggled to make an impact in the fourth quarter, finishing with just two points as the Dallas Mavericks pulled out a 112-103 victory over the Miami Heat and took a 3-2 series lead in the NBA Finals.
James, who did finish with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, scored his two fourth-quarter points on a meaningless layup with 29 seconds left. For the series, James now has just 11 fourth-quarter points, mostly while being hounded by the Mavericks’ Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson.
The fourth-quarter struggles have been so significant, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra even admits they’ll need to address the situation over the next couple of days.
“There’s obviously going to be some priorities in terms of closing out games,” he said. “… We haven’t been able to do it consistently enough in this series.”
That might be the understatement of the season.
Heck, as it stands right now, the Boston Bruins have scored more in the past two games of the Stanley Cup Finals than James has in the fourth quarter of the Finals.
“The King” could have put the fourth-quarter woes to rest Thursday but blew two crucial shots down the stretch. He missed an 18-foot jumper with 2:55 to go and the score tied at 100. He followed with a missed 3-pointer after the Mavs took a lead 102-100 lead with 1:50 left.
Then, to top it off, Jason Terry stepped back and drained a back-breaking trey in James’ face with 33.3 left to seal it. The under-sized “Jet” has now outscored James 16-2 in the fourth quarter of this series, but James wouldn’t admit he’s been outplayed down the stretch in the Finals.
“I don’t believe so,” James said when asked if he was pressing to close out games in this series. “I know I’m not. We as a team we played good enough to win, again. We put ourself in position to win down the stretch. Guys made plays. They just made a few more than we did. That’s what it came down to.”
While much has been made of James’ fourth-quarter play, what really comes into question is his play in the “clutch” – or the final five minutes of games where the scoring margin is within five points.
During those scenarios in the 2011 playoffs, James’ shooting percentage is down to 40% (from 46% over the rest of the game), while his three-point percentage is down to 33% (from 35%).
During the regular season, those numbers were also down: 44% from the field in the clutch (as opposed to 51%) and a dismal 24% from three-point range (compared to 33%).
It’s a far cry from LeBron’s first go-around in the Finals, scoring double digits in the fourth quarter of two of the four games. In that 2007 Finals against the Spurs, James scored 39 fourth-quarter points, increasing his fourth-quarter production as the series wore one (6 points in Game 1, 8 in Game 2, 12 in Game 3 and 13 in Game 4). Even in “clutch” situations, James improved his point production (0-3-6-8 points).
So how do LeBron and the Heat turn their clutch problems around this time around, and avoid being upset in the NBA Finals?
Well, it appears it’s time they turn to Dwyane Wade, just like they did in 2006 when he emerged from Shaquille O’Neal’s shadow to win the Finals MVP and his first NBA title.
Otherwise, it might just be Dirk Nowitzki who is labeled the next best “closer” in the game.