The King At His Best: LeBron James's Top Five NBA Playoff Runs

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Tuesday May 9th, 2017

LeBron James is dominating this postseason. Now in his 14th year in the league—and en route to his seventh straight Finals—James is perhaps putting together the finest playoff campaign of his legendary career. LeBron is currently averaging 34.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game as the Cavaliers cruise through the East, and he’s doing so with a ludicrous 66.3% true-shooting percentage.

Of course, James has had many storied postseason performances since entering the league in 2003. Here’s a subjective ranking of what I believe are the five best playoff runs of LeBron’s career. Stats matter, but so do aesthetics and stakes. How will the 2017 run compare to some of James’s finest? Before we look forward, we must look back.

Honorable Mention: 2015 (A little too inefficient), 2010 (Too few games)


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5. 2014, Finals loss, 27.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 4.8 APG, 66.8% TS%, 31.1 PER

Of James’s three Finals losses this decade, I’m partial to his 2014 defeat to the Spurs, when James was still playing uber-efficient basketball as the rest of his team crumbled. The Heat looked old in 2014, with most of the supporting cast well past their prime, and Dwyane Wade struggling to run both ends of the floor by the end of the playoffs.

James, however, was a bastion of consistency. He shot 56.5% from the field, including 40.7% from three. His assist numbers were down, but he made up for the relative lack of playmaking by scoring with ease.

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LeBron’s most memorable game from 2014 is his outburst against the Nets in the conference semifinals. Miami struggled against the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett-led Brooklyn squad in the regular season, but ousted them in five games in Round 2. In Game 4 of that series, James went for 49 points on only 16-of-24 shooting, with six rebounds and two assists for good measure.

Although this playoff run ended with a thorough loss in the Finals, it was far from James’s fault.

4. 2013, Finals win, 25.9/8.4/6.6/58.5%/28.1

LeBron capped off this remarkable run with his second straight title, and his play by the end of this series made his prediction of “Not four, not five, not six” look startlingly possible. What makes James’s 2013 run really stand out, more so than his raw production, is the number of clutch performances.

In Game 1 of the conference finals against the Pacers, James recorded a 30–10–10 triple double, and hit the game-winning shot in a overtime, a catch-and-dash layup at the expense of Paul George.

In Game 6 of the NBA Finals, remembered largely for Ray Allen’s incredible, series-saving shot, James played a whopping 50 of 53 possible minutes, and recorded another triple double, this time with 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. James famously lost his headband midway through the fourth quarter, and seemingly gained a new set of powers as he led a furious Heat comeback to force overtime.

And then, in Game 7, James racked up 37 points and 12 rebounds, and hit the series-clinching shot to secure his second Finals trophy.

Until the 2016 Finals, LeBron's 2013 playoff run was probably the most clutch stretch of his career.

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3. 2012, Finals win, 30.3/9.7/5.6/57.6%/30.3

After an extremely disappointing performance in the 2011 Finals, James rebounded with a spectacular run to capture his first championship. Some of James’s performances during the 2012 postseason were truly historic.

With the Heat missing Chris Bosh and facing a 2–1 deficit in the conference semifinals, LeBron had a Game 4 for the ages, scoring 40 points, corralling 18 rebounds and dishing nine assists to put the Heat’s season back on track.

In the Finals, James dominated his matchup with Kevin Durant, winning MVP as the Heat defeated an Oklahoma City team with Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. LeBron had a triple double in the closeout game, and was a cut above every player on the floor for the whole series.

Of course, the 2012 playoffs should be remembered for what was then probably the finest performance of James’s entire basketball career. Down 3–2, in Boston, with 'The Look' on his face, James went off for 45 points on 19-of-26 shooting and 15 rebounds. In a game that could have ended the Big Three experiment, James ruthlessly delivered a masterpiece.

2. 2016, Finals win, 26.3/9.5/7.6/58.5%/30.0

On the whole, James’s 2016 wasn’t particularly remarkable from start to finish, but holy hell what a finish it was. This playoff campaign gets a huge boost because of the Finals, when LeBron led the Cavs back from a 3–1 deficit against the winningest regular-season team of all-time with incredible performances in the final three games of the series.

There’s not much to say about the early rounds from this year. The Cavs swept their first two opponents, then faced a minor, Toronto-shaped speed bump before facing the Warriors for the second year in a row. James’s last three performances, all while facing elimination, were sublime.

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Game 5: 41 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists. Game 6: 41 points, eight rebounds, 11 assists and a demoralizing block of Stephen Curry. Game 7: 27 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists and the greatest defensive play in NBA history.

Three games usually don’t make a playoff run, but those three do in this case.

1. 2009, Conference finals loss, 35.3/9.1/7.3/61.8%/37.4

In terms of appearing to be an actual destroyer of worlds, I’m not sure LeBron looked better than he did in 2009. His stats were just completely off the charts, but the Cavs ran into a perfectly constructed Magic team that swooped in to make the Finals.

In the conference finals, in what is still arguably the best series he’s ever had, James averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game. It was a losing effort, but it makes sense when you consider the Cavs’ second-best player in that series was Mo Williams.

LeBron had not fine-tuned his shooting abilities by 2009, but that made it all the more incredible to watch as he relentlessly attacked the rim and dominated games with his athleticism. Since 2009, James has played in more important games under much more intense pressure, but from an aesthetics standpoint, I’m not sure we’ll ever see anything like 2009 LeBron for a very long time.

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