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LeBron Raises Everyone’s Game When Facing Elimination

It’s no secret that LeBron James’s already brilliant basketball abilities become even more superhuman when his back is against a wall. With the highest scoring average in NBA history when his team is facing elimination, LeBron’s season is not over until it is actually over.

With the Cavs facing a second-straight do-or-die game in the NBA Finals, no one is underestimating James’s ability to catapult Cleveland back into this series; especially after the comeback that took place last year. But what’s less discussed — and should be of more concern to the Warriors, despite their 3-1 series lead — is the fact that James doesn’t just raise his own game when facing elimination; he also makes everyone around him better even more than usual.

James has assisted 33 percent of his teammates’ postseason baskets1 throughout his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. But that number swells to a robust 40 percent when James is playing in a game with his team’s season on the line.

STATISTIC FACING ELIMINATION PLAYOFFS OVERALL
Usage rate 32.2% 29.6%
Assist percentage 40.1% 33.0%
Percentage of points in paint 43.0% 45.4%
Percentage of points from 3 19.3% 16.1%
Effective field-goal percentage 51.7% 52.1%
Minutes per game 44:30 42:00
LeBron facilitates even more than usual in do-or-die scenarios

Based on James’s career playoff statistics

Source: ESPN Stats and Information

To put that into context, consider this: Only John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time assist leader, who had a 45 percent assist rate in elimination games, has posted a higher mark in such contests2 over the past 20 seasons.3 James’s rate was considerably higher than that of Gary Payton or Steve Nash, who both logged 35 percent assist rates in do-or-die scenarios.

James’s eye-popping assist rate in elimination games points to how ridiculously great he’s been in these scenarios — that he could manage to have the highest scoring average ever in those matchups and also assist at that high a clip. It also lends credence to those who believe that James is more Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan, meaning he’d prefer to pick his spots and involve his teammates as opposed to dominating with his own scoring.

But for all the memories we have of Jordan putting playoff daggers in teams with his ability to score, when you take a closer look at his history in elimination games, you’ll see he often took the same approach that James has. He too looked his teammates’ direction when he had no margin for error.

Jordan faced elimination in 11 series during his career. In five of those series — against Boston4 in 1986, Detroit in 1988 and 1989,5 Orlando in 1995 and Indiana in 1998 — Jordan more than doubled his previous assist average6 in the elimination game. In four of those five series, Jordan scored less in the elimination games than he had averaged to that point.7

So, if James continues to facilitate at a high level in these NBA Finals rather than simply taking a gunner’s approach, it’s not a bad thing. He still scores a ton, and given that Jordan often moved the ball more in do-or-die scenarios during his career, James appears to be in pretty good company by doing so.

Footnotes

  1. This is actually a slight decrease from his 35 percent assist rate during his regular-season career.
  2. Minimum of 10 elimination games
  3. This stretch, which is as far back as Stats & Information Group’s data goes on this statistic, doesn’t cover Stockton’s prime.
  4. This game was immediately after his famous 63-point showing.
  5. These matchups came during the infamous “Jordan Rules” showdowns.
  6. Meaning he was previously averaging four assists against Boston during that series, but then posted nine in the do-or-die contest.
  7. The one exception: He scored 32 points against the Pistons in 1989. He’d been averaging 29 points before that.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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