Inefficient, Historic, and Spectacular: LeBron James' Game 3 Performance Was Unignorable
LeBron James' performance in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals between his Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks was fuel for both his haters and his most devoted admirers alike.
For those who look for ways to taint the man's legacy, this game had it all. For starters, he shot 37 field goal attempts, the most in a playoff game since Vince Carter in 2005. He only hit 14 of those 37 shots, including 1-for-6 from long range, for an unsightly Effective Field Goal Percentage (weighted twos and threes) of 39.2%. His shot chart -- despite all of the positives from this game (they're coming) -- was ugly.
He started the game shooting 0-for-10 for the first time in his career. He stalled and stunted Cleveland's offense at times, going into isolation a whopping 22 times on the night (a playoff high for any player, according to SportVU). Of those 22 isolations, he only scored 0.73 points per possession on 35.3% shooting. He turned the ball over six times on the night, bloating an already awful 2015 playoff average of 4.6 giveaways per contest. The Cavaliers won the game 114-111 in overtime, but were somehow -3 in LeBron's nearly 47 minutes on the floor, equivalent to a Net Rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) of -4.3. He cramped up, called himself in and out of the game in the dying minutes, collapsed on the floor at the final buzzer, and winced through the postgame interview.
He essentially did everything that people who hate LeBron hate about LeBron.
But somehow, as much as this game could be used by LeBron's detractors to smear his legacy, it too could be used as an example of his greatness.
This was an inefficient performance, make no mistake about it; 37 points on 37 shots is far from idealized basketball. But as a numbers website that bangs the efficiency drum as hard as anyone, even we have to admit that this game transcended what we typically value about efficiency.
It's not about missing shots, it's about putting the team on your back. It's about hunger, it's about will. That's what matters.— numberFire (@numberFire) May 25, 2015
LeBron may have taken 37 shots, fine, but he was playing without two thirds of his "Big Three" with both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sidelined. His supporting cast was instead three castoffs from the New York Knicks, a bench big, an undrafted Australian, James Jones, and what's left of a 37-year-old Shawn Marion. If those guys are your teammates and you still manage to lead the team in passes (86) and total assists (13), perhaps you're entitled to 37 shots.
Which brings us to the rest of LeBron's line. With those 37 points, he grabbed 18 rebounds (including eight on the offensive glass), handed out 13 assists, and swiped the ball three times. There's a lot of historical context surrounding that line.
For starters, it's the only line with 37 points, 18 rebounds, and 13 assists as a baseline in modern NBA playoff history (since 1984-85 and with the exception of a 53-point, 32-rebound, 14-assist performance from Wilt Chamberlain, which happened back when newspaper scans that didn't necessarily have all stats included were the main source of NBA data). It was also one of only three performances of at least 35 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists in postseason history and the first since Charles Barkley did it in 1993.
The triple-double, LeBron's 12th in his playoff career, moved him into second on that all-time list, trailing only Magic Johnson's 30. It was his sixth 30-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist playoff game, second only to Oscar Robertson's eight. He tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the third-most 30-point playoff games in NBA history with 75. He also moved past Karl Malone for sixth on the all-time playoff scoring list with 4,782 total points over 10 postseason runs.
Now, with a 3-0 series lead and a 93.4% chance of advancing (according to our algorithms), LeBron is on the verge of becoming the first player to play in five-straight NBA Finals since Bill Russell appeared in 10 straight from 1957 to 1966.
You can hate the man or you can love him, but it's getting nearly impossible to deny his place in NBA history as one of the best players of all time. Even when he puts up inefficient duds, they're historically significant gems.