Following the dramatic 113-108 win by the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Denver Nuggets Wednesday night, LeBron James was feeling good about himself. Making one clutch basket after another and another will do that to you.
After the Nuggets came all the way back from a 16-point deficit to take the lead, the game was a nip-and-tuck affair until James had enough. He scored a long three-pointer from the left side, a tough fadeaway jumper, and a tougher, longer fall away from within the same vicinity.
"What can't he do?!"
— NBA (@NBA) March 8, 2018
Once again, James showed that he can deliver in the clutch and he went as far as to say that he is playing at his peak best in an interview after the game.
LeBron is on 10. pic.twitter.com/AEdjzQP8Wi
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 8, 2018
“Probably an all-time high,” James told ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth. “Just because of my body, my mind, the way I go out and approach the game. And then, just the grace of God, giving me the ability to do this. I’m blessed, and I never take it for granted.”
After he was informed of James’ comments about being at an “all-time high,” coach Tyronn Lue had to agree.
“Yeah, he’s definitely playing well, and tonight we had to ride him a little bit more than we wanted to,” Lue said. “But down the stretch, we needed him to make plays, he had the ball in his hands and he did that, so he is playing at a high level. I didn’t know until today that he’s second in the NBA in assists. I didn’t even know that. So he’s passing the ball, sharing the basketball, having 10 assists again tonight and he could have had 18-19, but we missed some open shots. So he has to continue to keep doing that for us.”
James has been delivering one clutch basket after another this season and the Nuggets are the latest victims of his dagger shots. In fact, this season is perhaps the best that James has ever performed in the clutch.
There are many who believe that James doesn’t possess the “clutch gene” as if such a thing truly existed. Foremost of these naysayers is The Undisputed’s Skip Bayless who has been critical of James from way back during his time on ESPN’s First Take.
Bayless doesn’t admit that he’s a “LeBron-hater” but he doesn’t believe James can catch up to Michael Jordan’s legacy as perhaps arguably the greatest of all time or simply the G.O.A.T. His biggest issue is James’ “clutch-ness,” the fact that he shies away from taking game-winning shots at times and that he misses them when he takes them.
But the evidence points against Bayless.
The NBA defines clutch time as the last five minutes in the 4th quarter or OT with a score differential of +/- 5.
With this in mind, let’s look into James’ performance in the clutch this season.
Last season, James ranked 20th in total clutch scoring. This year, he’s at the number one spot in total points and second in total assists in the clutch. When you look at averages among those who have played at least 10 games in clutch situations, James is number one in clutch scoring at 4.4 points per game.
What made this season extra special for James?
First, there was the trade of Kyrie Irving. James has been tentative in previous seasons to take game-winning or game-tying shots because he has a teammate who can deliver in the clutch, perhaps more than he can (that’s debatable, though). Time and time again, the 4-time MVP would defer to Irving who had a better free-throw percentage than he did even though he had his share of clutch shooting as well.
In a piece written by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst late last year, he notes how the separation of the two great players has benefitted them individually.
“The last couple years, Kyrie obviously being as great as he was in the fourth quarter, we kind of pick our games,” James said. “There was games half the time that he had it going and, ‘Hey, go get it.’ There was games half the time where I had it going, and I’d go get it.
“Right now my teammates look at me and they’re like, ‘OK, like, this is your quarter, you’ve done this your whole career. Let’s try to make some things happen.’ It’s very important that I try to come through for them.”
This year, James and Irving are numbers one and two in the clutch, respectively. It’s amazing how a change of scenery can dramatically alter the narrative about a player despite having shown time and time again that he delivers when the game is on the line.
Secondly, James’ shooting from three-point range is the third highest of his career. If not for a horrible showing in January, we may be looking at career-highs in three-point and free-throw shooting from the All-Star forward by now. Because of this, he has more confidence to take and make the go-ahead basket or a game-tying shot.
Three-point marksman and teammate Kyle Korver marveled at James’ shooting this season.
“My man has worked his way into being a real shooter. Like, for real. He can really shoot,” Korver said of James. “His fundamentals, he has worked on it, in this last year that I’ve been here. His shot is really, really good. He’s worked hard, and it’s showing.”
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported that James had to adjust his shooting stroke during the offseason because of soreness in his elbow. As a result, it improved his form, his efficiency, and, I’d like to add, his clutch-ness as well.
What many may not realize still is that James has been the most clutch player of his generation. Several websites and pundits have analyzed scores of data and have proven James to be a clutch player such as ESPN, Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight, and Adam Fromal of Bleacher Report among others.
Tony Pesta of KingJamesGospel.com compared James with the two players who have been touted as the most clutch players of any era and the result may surprise you.
“As you can see, LeBron shoots the best percentage with 10 seconds left and the second-best percentage in the final 24 seconds,” Pesta says. “It may be shocking to see that James shoots over 30% better from the field than Kobe Bryant when taking the last shot. However, the numbers do not lie. LeBron James is a player you can rely upon to make the game-winning shot. LeBron also has the same amount of game-winning buzzer beaters in the playoffs as Michael Jordan (3 Shots).”
For the total number of buzzer-beating game-winners, the Cavaliers superstar has made five of them throughout his career.
James has been taking and making clutch shots since he came into the league. This year, he’s simply doing it at a career-best clip and better than anyone else in the NBA.