This headline should look old and almost foreign to anyone who’s followed LeBron James over the past few years. But after last night, it’s the most accurate one to describe how the Heat got such an improbable win over the Nets after trailing for the majority of the game: LeBron’s clutch fourth quarter performance lifts Miami past New Jersey. Wait, what? Is this an evergreen story somebody wrote when LeBron was back in Cleveland? King James hasn’t shown up for the fourth quarter in Miami….ever!
But it’s true. Last night, LeBron James was the definition of clutch. You can chalk it up to Dwyane Wade being out. You can say it only happened because it was against the Nets. You can even just call it a fluke and say it won’t happen again. But the fact remains: when LeBron James attacks the basket in the fourth quarter and in the final minutes of most games, something good usually happens for his team.
I’m not foolish enough to say that LeBron James scoring the last 17 points for his team in a game against the lowly Nets excuses him for the past year and a half of vanishing and deferring to teammates in the clutch. It doesn’t even qualify him as a good crunch-time player. But if all of ESPN’s sportswriters aren’t going to give LeBron enough credit to put this on paper and point it out for the world to know, somebody’s got to: LeBron James can be a clutch player again if he just keeps attacking the basket.
There’s no denying statistics; often, when a so-called “clutch player” gets the ball on the final play, goes one-on-one with his defender and takes some ridiculous fadeaway jumper with a hand in his face to win the game in dramatic, memorable fashion, his team’s chances of winning go way down. Guys like Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Chauncey Billups and even guys like Derrick Rose and Chris Paul have reputations of being great clutch players for some of the fantastic game-winners they’ve hit in their time. But how many do they miss? How many times does their team lose because of that one-on-one, last-second-heroics BS? The fact is, when the game is on the line, if the guy with the ball in his hands attacks the basket (instead of dribbling around for five seconds and then launching some hopeful fadeaway jumper), his team’s odds of winning go way up.
If a clutch player goes to the rim and tries to draw contact, one of four things happens: 1) The guy gets by his defender and makes a game-winning layup/dunk or at the very least, drains a short-range shot. 2) The guy gets enough speed going and draws enough contact to get to the free throw line. 3) The defense commits to stopping the drive with help, leaving shooters on the perimeter wide open. 4) The defense makes a great play and actually earns the victory. Ask any defender late in the game what’s easier to stop: a guy full of steam attacking the basket and possibly finding open shooters after penetrating, or a proud superstar wasting valuable seconds (that could be used for a rebound and put-back on a miss) and jacking up some stupid contested jumper? They’ll tell you it’s the guy attacking every time. It’s just good team basketball. Instead of running some isolation play and putting the fate of the game in one guy’s hands, why not do the intelligent thing and go to the hole, increasing your chance of scoring, getting fouled or freeing up teammates? It’s just the smart basketball play and that fact doesn’t change just because we’re talking about the NBA. As much as we wish there were, there won’t be another clutch player like Michael Jordan.
So going back to LeBron, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when he didn’t make every lazy jumper he took in fourth quarters and we rightfully labeled him as a disappearing act. “This is still Dwyane Wade’s team; D-Wade is the one making the big shots in the fourth quarter and keeping his team alive in close games down the stretch. Hell, Chris Bosh seemed like a better option than giving LeBron the ball in the fourth!” But did anyone stop to think about why LeBron seemed completely absent in the fourth? I’m sure some of it has to do with LeBron and D-Wade struggling to work out who is the alpha dog with the game on the line. And in the NBA Finals last year, it was true that he was vanishing because he was flat-out not shooting the ball. But the other part of it is shot selection. While LeBron spends the first three quarters attacking the basket and making pressure-free jumpers, once the fourth quarter rolls around, he settles for easy jump shots he can get at any time. And it’s true, sometimes he’s had games where he’s attacking the rim but doesn’t get results and so we still label him as a disappearing act. And there’s also nights were he finds wide open teammates for game-winning shots, but nobody praises him for drawing double teams and finding wide open guys because his teammates miss the shot and all we remember is that LeBron is adding to his developing legacy of disappearing in the fourth. But when he attacks the rim throughout the final period like he did last night, he’s nearly impossible to stop. There’s a reason he scored those 17 points straight: he went hard to the basket, made contested layups because of his size, speed and strength, and drew contact and got to the foul line.
LeBron James’ legacy is still developing. There’s no question we think less of him for losing a championship by himself and then another one once he had D-Wade and Bosh on his side. It definitely didn’t help that the second lost Finals had a lot to do with his blatant absence in the clutch. He’s failed so many times in the fourth quarter for the Heat that we forget that just a few years ago, we would have given Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron the ball with the game on the line over about 95 percent of the guys in the league. Hopefully LeBron takes last night’s game to heart and understands why he was so successful in closing that game. Because if he does, can you think of anything more terrifying than watching your team play the Heat in a close game with LeBron James driving hard to the basket like a runaway freight train? I can’t.