The King's Ridiculous Night: How LeBron James Scored 49 Points

A look at the anatomy of LBJ's career playoff high and where it fits in NBA history.

We’re really sorry, LeBron James.

The 2014 NBA Playoffs have been ripe with stories. We were so enamoured with how crazy the first round of the playoffs was that we kind of ignored how you took care of business against the Bobcats, averaging 30.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game, while shooting 55.7% from the field.

In the second round, we all fell in love with the stories about the Pacers alternating between melting down and building themselves back up, the Spurs defying all the normal signs of aging, and how the Thunder and Clippers matched up so evenly. In the process, our interest waned a little when it came to watching you beat up on a Nets team that doesn’t really stack up to your back-to-back NBA Champion Heat (our algorithms had you guys as 79.81% favorites to win the series from day one).

Other than that, we’ve just been totally into the Donald Sterling trainwreck and Kevin Durant's timeless MVP speech. I mean, have you seen those things?

But then you went and reminded us that you’re still the best basketball player on the planet by dropping 49 insanely efficient points in a pivotal Game 4 in which your team took a 3-1 series lead and inched ever closer to your fourth straight Eastern Conference Finals (your odds of advancing are now at a decisive 96.28%). Thanks for the memo!

What’s that? LeBron James isn’t listening to me?

Ok, fine. Let’s still take a moment to break down and appreciate his historical night anyways.

A Career Night Fit for the King

First of all, LeBron’s 49 points ties the career playoff high that he set in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic. The performance also leapfrogged teammate Dwyane Wade's 46 points scored in the first round of the 2010 Playoffs (pre-Big 3) against the Celtics for the highest scoring total of any Miami Heat player in their playoff history.

LBJ got there by shooting 16 of 24 from the field (66.7%), 3 of 6 from long range (50.0%), and 14 of 19 from the free throw line (73.7%). That results in a 72.9% effective field goal percentage (weighted twos and threes) and a 75.7% true shooting percentage (weighted twos, threes, and frees). Here’s a look at his hot zones (for the record, practically everywhere other than the mid-range):

The most striking thing about that shot chart is that the King, a wing player, was able to amass 12 shots in the restricted area and, more impressively, was able to connect on 11 of them. That represents the second highest playoff total of field goals attempted in the restricted area for his career and it came as a result of a steady diet of driving to the basket (his 10 drives in Game 4 represent a series high). He also played a very even game, scoring 12, 13, 15, and 9 points across the four quarters, hitting over 50.0% of his attempts from the floor in every frame.

How did he shoot so well? Well, it’s not like he was open all the time. Of his 24 shots, the Nets were able to contest 15 of them (a resulting contest rate of 62.5%, fairly standard and perhaps even a bit stingy). Unfortunately for the Nets, LeBron connected on 12 of those contested shots, resulting in an 80.0% success rate. In fact, that was even better than his 4 for 9 (44.4%) performance on his uncontested shots. The Nets threw nine defenders at him and he shot at least 50.0% against all but one of them (he missed his one shot against Deron Williams). Paul Pierce took the brunt of the damage, allowing 11 points on 3 of 5 shooting from the floor.

Apart from scoring, one might look at the rest of his raw box score stats and conclude that he didn’t do much else. He only managed to get 6 rebounds (all defensive) and 2 assists, down from season averages of 6.9 and 6.3 respectively. The rebounding total is close and the lack of an offensive rebound could have something to do with the fact that the man couldn’t miss, but don’t mistake the lack of assists to mean that LeBron was locked into his own shot and nothing else.

Thanks to SportVU’s insightful player tracking data, we can see that LeBron led the entire game with 67 passes and added a secondary (or hockey) assist and two free throw assists (a pass that led to a missed field goal attempt due to a foul and the fouled player hit at least one of the resulting free throws).

LeBron was certainly looking for his teammates. After all, he scored 49 points while only taking 24 of his team’s 70 shots (34.3%). He even deferred to Chris Bosh via Mario Chalmers for a tie-breaking corner three-pointer that put the Heat ahead for good in the final minute of the game. It’s not often that you see a player who basically can’t miss, having a career night, who then defers to a teammate on the game’s most important possession. That unselfishness is a big part of what makes LeBron so special.

To round things out, LeBron threw in 3 steals (resulting in 7 points in transition) and only turned the ball over once. It wasn’t necessarily the stat-stuffing special we’ve come to expect from the King, but the efficiency alone was enough to make it a performance for the ages.

Historical Context

In the final 1.1 seconds of regulation, LeBron stepped to the line to take two otherwise meaningless free throws with the game already decided. What made those free throws meaningful, however, is that they gave James the chance to join the 50-point club (which only has 17 other members in all the playoff series since 1964). He fell just short of the milestone, splitting the pair and finishing with a mere 49 points.

I kid, I kid. Even so, for our purposes, let’s take a look at how many players in history have hit the 49-point plateau in the playoffs:

PlayerGames > 49 PointsHighest Total
Michael Jordan1063
Allen Iverson355
Jerry West353
Kobe Bryant250
LeBron James249
14 others156

LeBron became only the fifth player in modern NBA history to hit that mark at least twice. LeBron’s success will forever be tied and compared to Michael Jordan, so it’s worth noting that King James is still a long ways away from catching His Airness on this front. Jordan had already put up 7 of his 10 49-plus-point performances by the time he was LeBron’s age, Of course, as mentioned above, one of the things that makes LeBron so special is his unselfishness and willingness to defer to his teammates. The MVP trophies and rings can continue to fuel the debate, but Jordan’s likely to keep this advantage on his résumé for a while.

Even so, LBJ’s performance has its place in the history books. Of the 25 occurrences of 49 or more points that have happened in the playoffs since 1986 (when field goal attempts became part of the box score), LeBron’s 24 shots represent the fewest field goal attempts of anyone in the club. It might not be the highest scoring total in NBA Playoff history, but it will surely go down as one of the most efficient.