The divide in sports in the year 2012 is between those who measure everything by statistics and those who are more inclined to side with the, “eye test.” The statistics reflect that LeBron James more often than not performs well in the clutch. But what the statistics cannot show you or describe is why James, in some instances, appears so deferential in big moments in games. It’s not always a matter of passing off big play responsibilities to another elite star, Dwyane Wade, sometimes it’s simply the next rotation over, to the next man.
What no one will deny is James’ exceptional aggregate statistics in the Playoffs over the course of his career. Following the Heat’s Game 6 victory over Indiana on Thursday night, James is averaging 28.1 points per game (ppg), 8.4 rebounds per game (rpg) and 6.4 assists per game (apg) on 46% shooting in 103 career playoff games. All of LeBron’s per game averages are marginally better in the postseason than in the regular season. His career regular season shooting percentage is 48%.
However, the perception lingers with LeBron James, that he lacks the late-game fortitude that other great players possessed, such as cold-blooded game closers Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and LeBron’s contemporary, Kobe Bryant. Here is what the statistics can show you: During the 2011 NBA Playoffs, in the 4th quarter or overtime with less than 3 minutes on the clock, while The Heat were winning by as many as five points or trailing by as many as five points, LeBron James attempted 30 shots and made 12, good for 40% from the field. During this NBA regular season, using the same criteria, LeBron James was a 43% shooter. While this NBA Playoffs have so far produced too small of a sample size to judge Lebron’s “clutchness”, we’ve seen fodder for both LeBron’s supporters and haters.
James turned in one of the epic performances in NBA Playoffs history in Game 4 of the Heat’s series against Indiana. “The King” poured in 40 points, snared 18 boards and dished out 9 assists, on 52% shooting; A line that would make all-time greats like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan blush. James has dominated, at times, proving why he’s the league’s best player. Yet, with less than one minute to go in Game 2 against Indiana, LeBron came to the free throw line for two shots with Miami down by one point. He missed both free throws and Miami went on to lose the game. Nerves? Well, that belief is in the mind of the beholder. Prior to those two free throws LeBron had shot 8-11 from the charity stripe for the game. For his career, LeBron’s free throw percentage is virtually identical in the regular season and the Playoffs.
What the statistics cannot show as definitively is a player’s aversion to taking a shot in big moments. That is something for the pundits and fans to discuss and is more subject to the, “eye test.” LeBron’s hesitance to shoot in the clutch came under fire during last season’s NBA Finals against Dallas. James only averaged 17.8 ppg in the 2011 Finals and repeatedly passed up big shots. This further perpetuated the sport public’s curiosity on whether there really is a “clutch” gene or if some players simply rise to the occasion better in big moments than others, for reasons beyond our ability to quantify.
As the Heat ready for their opponent in the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron will once again be under the microscope. He already holds three MVP awards and has shown no signs of slowing down or losing the title of, top player in the league. But LeBron knows that he will be judged by whether he can win a championship. And then, whether he can repeat that feat again and again. First things first, he needs to get his hands on just one. How he performs in the closing minutes of the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals, and perhaps NBA Finals, and whether he chooses to seize the moment and nail the big shot, will help define his career.