As we roll into LeBron James’ sixth trip to the NBA Finals, the noise surrounding the sport’s biggest star is impossibly loud. No pity for LeBron. He’s placed himself as the center of attention, via endorsements, social media, and Hollywood. He has openly talked about his goals of becoming a “global icon,” and his reason for returning to Cleveland was about “a calling above basketball.” These are not the words, nor actions, of an unwilling participant in the celebrity machine.
LeBron has wanted the attention, he’s welcomed it, and with it comes the pitfalls. Critics rip apart your every failure. Gallons of haterade are poured after your losses. You are held to impossible standards. It’s not good enough that you’re already one of the greatest ever to play, a two-time champion (at age 30), and a decent human being off the court. You also will never be Michael, they say. This is the Holy Grail of criticisms, the last thread of twine holding the critics from floating out into the ether.
Because no matter how successful, how dominant, how great LeBron is… well, he didn’t go 6-and-0 in his championship appearances. So there! Which is a little like kids on the playground arguing about who’s dad is cooler.
But in the neverending assault on LeBron’s lack of credentials compared to Michael, we inevitably get the old, “He’s not clutch” routine. Which, as we commence the 2015 NBA Finals, can now officially be retired. If you get into an argument over the next two weeks about LeBron vs. Michael or Magic or Larry or Kobe, please just wave this debate off like Obi Wan in Mos Eisley. “This is not the argument you’re looking for.”
LeBron has been at his most clutch in some of the biggest games of his career. Of anyone’s career. Let’s look at his top three.
3) Game 5, 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron’s career got its first legacy moment, when he scored 29 of the Cavs’ final 30 points, on the road, against the era’s most dominant defensive team. He finished with 48 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists in a crucial double OT game, to grab a 3-2 series lead. Cleveland would go on to clinch their first appearance ever in the Finals with a win at home in Game 6. That Detroit team was in the middle of a run of 6 straight trips to the ECF, two Finals appearances and a championship. Marv Albert has seen his share of greatness. He said that night: “This goes down as one of the all-time performances in NBA history.”
2) Game 6, 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. I hosted a watch party around the corner from the TD Garden that night. Every soul in New England felt the Celtics would once again slay the LeBron dragon. The Boston crowd was ruthless on James in those days, and relished taunting him like Magic, Laimbeer and Wilt in years past. The Celtics had the Heat on the ropes, and could head to their third Finals appearance in five years with a win. Instead, LeBron stuck his hand into the chest cavity of Boston and ripped out its pumping heart. James went for 45 points and 15 rebounds, destroying the game from the opening tip. It was like watching your tree house get obliterated by a wrecking ball. Helpless. That watch party turned into a three-hour funeral procession. Doc Rivers postgame: “I hope you guys can stop talking about LeBron, ‘he doesn’t play in big games.’ Now that’s to bed.”
1) Game 7, 2013 NBA Finals. What defines clutch more than how you play in a game that decides a championship? Especially against a modern dynasty? In a winner-take-all LeBron had his greatest moment, 37 points, 12 rebounds, and clinching back-to-back titles. With a two-point lead and just thirty seconds to play, LeBron hit an enormous jumper from the right elbow. He also iced the game with two pressure-soaked free-throws seconds later. Tim Duncan is one of the greatest to ever lace them up. He has five titles, and is arguably the greatest ever to play his position. Duncan: “LeBron was unbelievable. He just found a way to get it done.”
You can rip him for The Decision. Call him an attention-seeker. Root for the Warriors all you want. But as soon as you start down the road of, “Yeah, but he’s not clutch…” is when you render your argument useless. Because apparently you’ve been asleep for the three of the greatest playoff performances ever. Or maybe out shopping during the 2012 Finals Game 6 when LeBron had a triple-double (32-10-11) to stave off elimination in the “Ray Allen in the Corner” game. Or you were out to brunch with mom on Mother’s Day last month when he had 25-14-8 and the game-winner from deep to win Game 4 in Chicago, and change the course of the entire series.
Keep pouring that haterade, but next time spike it with something strong. Because LeBron’s clutch. It’s just harder to admit when you’re sober.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.