LeBron James is entering his eighth NBA Finals and seventh-consecutive, so let’s rewind and look at the previous matchups.
A myriad of factors played into how LeBron James and his teams have performed in the Finals. In all but two series, James has put up dazzling numbers, and the 3-4 record he boasts is somewhat misleading. Whether it’s because the opponents were overmatched or he didn’t have enough help, James has a less-than-desireable record when it counts most. The anti-LeBron crowd feasts on this, but it’s nearly impossible to brush his numbers off to the side.
I’m not here to have the LeBron-Jordan-Kobe debate. (By the way, Kobe doesn’t belong in it. If you want to see why, here’s a link to a Google Sheet with the trio’s numbers.) I’m just here to enjoy his greatness because James is, undoubtedly, the most impressive all-around performer in Finals history. He plays both ends of the court, grabs rebounds, hands out dimes and scores with impressive efficiency for someone who has such an immense workload.
There are no other contributing factors to this list. The outcome of the series didn’t matter, nor did the amount of help or anything like that. This ranking is just numbers.
7. 2011 vs. Dallas Mavericks
Line: 17.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.5 blocks, 47.8/32.1/60.0
I’ve been on the record saying how much of a LeBron fan I am. I take pride in being objective, and his showing in 2011 was dreadful in every sense of the word. Maybe Derrick Rose stealing the MVP from him left him emotionally wrecked. Whatever happened, James was far from himself.
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He wasn’t aggressive at all. Being frank, he looked scared of the moment. Even if the Heat had chemistry issues, that series is entirely different if James shows up. Dwyane Wade was playing like an MVP and Chris Bosh was doing more than expected. If James put up numbers anything close to what he’s doing now, he’s a four-time champion.
The most egregious part of it all were his forgettable fourth quarters that no one ever lets him forget. And rightfully so.
6. 2007 vs. San Antonio Spurs
Line: 22.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 35.6/20.0/69.0
The Spurs strategy of forcing the ball out of LeBron’s hands worked well here. 2007 was the year that James dragged a rag-tag group of guys to a Finals where they had no business competing. Nonetheless, James didn’t show.
Most objective people let this one slide because of the circumstance, and it’s very impressive that only one loss came by double-digits. Unlike the Finals four years later, James was almost forced to take every shot because he had corpses playing alongside him, and the 22-year-old averaged 22.5 attempts a night during the sweep.
5. 2014 vs. San Antonio Spurs
Line: 28.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 57.1/51.9/79.3
Unlike the first time LeBron met the Spurs, he had help. However, no one showed up. James put together a terrific run but — judging by the assist numbers — San Antonio employed a variant of their 2007 strategy.
Either James beats them by himself, or they take their chances and have his teammates beat them. After seven years, James had turned into a completely different beast. He was in the midst of his prime and the NBA’s best player, so having him do everything himself was the move from Gregg Popovich.
It worked, and the Spurs handled Miami in five games to redeem themselves from the year prior. However, this wouldn’t be the last time LeBron balled out and had nothing to show for it.
4. 2013 vs. San Antonio Spurs
Line: 25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.9 blocks, 44.7/35.3/79.5
Did Ray Allen save Miami by draining the game-tying three with five seconds left after LeBron’s miss? He did, but let’s not forget that James buried a triple just 15 seconds earlier to make it a one-possession game.
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James was sensational all series long, and it was different from all the times he lost because rebounds and assists were up. When LeBron’s able to have that much of an impact on a loaded roster, he’s tough to beat. And that’s what happened in 2013.
It was his second title, and that’s when we started to view him as one of the greatest ever. Winning twice isn’t a fluke, and the Spurs certainly weren’t a pushover. They were still at the heart of their dynasty, but James proved once again that he’s the most versatile forward ever to play.
3. 2012 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Line: 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 47.2/18.8/82.6
Kevin Durant wasn’t yet KD. Russell Westbrook wasn’t yet Russ. James Harden wasn’t yet The Beard. This meeting came a couple of years too early, but LeBron was already The King at this point. For what they were, the Thunder played as well as they could’ve, but it was taking candy from a baby.
After Oklahoma City had stolen one, the Heat bounced back to win four straight, and James captured that elusive first title in dazzling fashion.
It was a special moment, and the guy who choked away a Finals just a year earlier looked completely different. No longer was he afraid of the moment, and this was a huge momentum shift.
2. 2015 vs. Golden State Warriors
Line: 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.5 blocks, 39.8/31.0/68.7
The 2015 NBA Finals had the greatest one-man offense. Ever. Throw the shooting numbers out the window — James nearly beat the 67-win Warriors by himself. It’s incomprehensible to think he nearly averaged a triple-double with Timofey Mozgov as his second-leading scorer.
His numbers would’ve suffered if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were healthy, but LeBron did everything in his power to keep the Cavaliers afloat. In the end, the Warriors talent was just too much for them.
He had a legitimate case for Finals MVP. If he didn’t play as outrageously as he played, Cleveland likely gets swept and who knows how we view LeBron going forward?
1. 2016 vs. Golden State Warriors
Line: 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, 2.3 blocks, 49.4/37.1/72.1
It’s fun to make jokes about the Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead in the Finals, but the Cavaliers took that lead from them. As I mentioned above, having Irving and Love healthy meant James’ numbers would suffer on offense — and they did. Conversely, his defense reached a new level, and that’s what makes this series his most dominant.
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He scored and set up others to score. He rebounded. He played the passing lanes and had the most legendary block in NBA playoffs history, and he did so against the greatest regular season team ever.
It was a storybook Finals for LeBron, but it also set the bar high. Now, we’re expecting crazy production. And there’s nothing else I want to see than James going head-to-head with multiple Warriors for seven games.
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