For all the greatness he exudes, LeBron James has had more than his fair share of lackluster playoff performances during his sure-to-be Hall of Fame career. Now, every NBA superstar has a playoff dud or two in which his shot isn’t falling, but in James’ case it’s the lack of energy or engagement that has been truly eye-opening.
It seemed as though he moved past those bizarre efforts since returning to Cleveland, but he put up another doozy in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, reminding us all of how James can go from dominant in one game to disappointing in the next.
Here are the five times James pulled a disappearing act in the postseason.
Months earlier, James confidently talked about winning as many as seven titles during a championship-style celebration after the Heat lured him and Chris Bosh in the offseason to play alongside Dwyane Wade. That moment placed a nearly league-wide bull’s-eye on the Heat, who were roundly booed at nearly every visiting arena. Maybe all the hate eventually got to James, who had a Finals performance that many feel disqualified him from the talk of “greatest player ever”.
His Game 4 effort was easily the most disappointing. With the Heat holding a 2-1 lead and having a chance to put a stranglehold on the series against the underdog Mavericks, James was not engaged. He took just 11 shots and got to the free-throw line only four times as Dallas won 86-83. Bosh and Wade combined for 56 points in the loss, which was the first of three in a row that eventually cost Miami the title.
2010: Game 5, Eastern Conference semifinals
Stats: 15 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, 3-14 fgs
The first time we saw instances of LeBron disappearing in the playoffs was during his first tenure in Cleveland. James was the Cavaliers in those seven years, shouldering the load for an organization like few others have in NBA history. But as the Cavs came up short year after year in the playoffs despite LeBron’s heroics, his frustration with his hometown team grew.
During what would eventually become his final year in Cleveland in the 2009-10 season, James was inundated with questions about his upcoming free agency. It all culminated during Cleveland’s second-round series against the Celtics and their Big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. With the series tied at 2-2, LeBron had one of his worst playoff performances, finishing with 15 points in 41 minutes. He scored less than a way-past-his-prime Shaquille O’Neal, who had 21 points in 26 minutes. The Cavs never recovered from the defeat and went on to lose the series in six games. James famously ripped off his Cavs jersey after the Game 6 loss and a few months later took his talent to … well, you know where.
In the Celtics’ first year of their Big 3 era, they dethroned the Cavs as the team with the NBA’s best record and eventually bounced them in the playoffs. In Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, James had less points than Wally Szczerbiak and had more than half of Cleveland’s 17 turnovers. Yes, he nearly had a triple-double but Cleveland couldn’t overcome his shooting woes from the field – including 0-of-6 from deep – in a narrow 76-72 loss.
James also got an up-close look at the value of a Big 3 in the process. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combined for just four points in the game, but Kevin Garnett went off for 28 points to help Boston keep homecourt advantage in a series the Celtics would win in seven games.
How can putting up a triple-double be underwhelming? Coming off that bizarre Game 4 performance, many assumed LeBron would give an emphatic answer to all the critics who were questioning his place in history. Instead, James appeared content to defer in a pivotal Game 5 with the series tied at 2-2. He took just two free throws in 45 minutes while the other two members of the Heat’s Big 3 combined for 21 free-throw attempts. Mario Chalmers came off the bench and nearly outscored James (15 points), while taking more free throws (3) in nearly half the playing time (23 minutes).
James followed this performance with a 21-point effort and got to the free-throw line just four times despite playing at home and facing elimination. In the ongoing debate about James potentially being greater than Michael Jordan, LeBron’s detractors bring up this series as the biggest black eye in his illustrious career and evidence that he can never dethrone Jordan as the greatest ever.
Virtually no one saw this one coming. James had scored at least 30 points in nine of 10 playoff games this year and powered the Cavs to a perfect run before this inexplicable effort. Cleveland was coming off one of the most lopsided playoff wins in NBA history and Boston was without All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas. Instead of stepping on the Celtics’ throat, James deferred to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. LeBron took just 13 shots and got to the free-throw line six times despite playing 45 minutes at home. Richard Jefferson said after the stunning loss to the undermanned Celtics that he thought James was under the weather.
Whatever the reason, it was the latest example of James’ having these moments of passivity that we’re not used to seeing from other all-time greats.