Every 2018 LeBron James Playoff Game: Ranked
Just over a week and a half ago, LeBron James wrapped up one of the greatest individual postseason runs in NBA history. Over the course of 22 games and 41.9 minutes per game, both of which led the NBA playoffs, LeBron dragged the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, where they were swiftly dispatched by the Golden State Warriors. The Cleveland squad that LeBron was carrying drew comparisons to the Cavaliers of 2007 that were also dragged to the Finals and were also swept, then by the San Antonio Spurs.
This year, James averaged 34 points, 9.1 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game. Every game was must watch, especially as the Cavs-Pacers first-round series and Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, were 7 game thrillers that both had moments where it looked as if LeBron would be eliminated short of the NBA Finals. The 9.0 assists/game that LeBron averaged was a playoff career-high and it came on the back of 9.1 assists/game in the regular season, another career high. LeBron’s marked improvement in the assist category (5.9/game as a rookie vs 9.1/game in 2017–2018) is emblematic of his evolution as a player.
As his career has progressed, LeBron has added a new skill to his NBA repertoire with regularity. During the 2017–2018 season, James made 1.8 3-pointers per game on 5 attempts per game (36.7% shooting). Compared with where he was as a rookie, 0.8 made/game on 2.7 attempts/game (29%), it’s as if he’s a completely different player. And, as we saw, especially against Boston, his step back three on the wing has become a go-to knock out punch; in Game 6 vs the Celtics, LeBron made basically the same shot twice, ending any hope the Celtics had of a comeback. And, of course, the Toronto Raptors series where the Cavs, led by LeBron swept the East’s number one seed in dominating fashion. LeBron looked like he was playing pick-up basketball out there with the ridiculous fade-away over the shoulder shots he was making.
In the 2017–2018 playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers went 12–10. Over 22 games, LeBron reignited the LeBron/MJ debate and showed us a side of himself, as a basketball player, that we’ve never seen before. I went back through all 22 games and ranked them, from 1 to 22. For the most part, with one notable exception, wins and elimination games dominate the first spots. With LeBron playing 22 games, tops in the NBA playoffs, I decided to break the ranking into two parts. Here is part 1, with the top 13 games of LeBron James’ postseason ranked:
1. Game 1 @ Golden State Warriors — Loss (OT) : 47 minutes, 51 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 19/32 (59.4%) FG %, 3/7 (42.9%) on 3P %, 10/11 (90.9%) FT %
That’s the only word that I could come up with to describe King James’ performance in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, on the road and in a (very) hostile arena. This game will be, unfortunately, remembered as the JR Smith game where he forgot the score in the closing seconds, but I hope we do not forget why the Cavs were in a position to win that game. LeBron played an absolutely beautiful game, one of the best I’ve ever seen. And the Cavs needed every bit of it. They came out and punched the Warriors in the mouth, hard; they forced them into a long, difficult game that came on the heels of the Western Conference Finals where the Warriors almost stumbled to the Houston Rockets. The Cavs HAD to win Game 1 to make the series competitive. And, thanks to LeBron, they almost did. Once overtime started, the Warriors went into their engaged another gear and blew away the Cavs. However, knowing what we know about how the rest of the series turned out, that makes LeBron’s Game 1 even more spectacular. He played almost every minute, scored almost half of his team’s points, got his teammates involved, made 3-pointers and free throws and still lost the game. It’s unfortunate that LeBron (and the Rockets) ran into the greatest collection of individual talent in NBA history because a championship caliber player and team both got eliminated and will not be remembered.
Game 1 was a fully engaged and attacking LeBron, not something we get to see very often. His greatest individual game will be forever overshadowed by a teammate’s gaffe and an NBA
dynasty, but don’t let that distract from the greatness LeBron reaffirmed in Game 1.
2. Game 2 @ Toronto — Win: 40 minutes, 43 points, 8 rebounds, 14 assists, 19/28 (67.9%) FG %
This game actually has a higher Game Score, a metric for boiling down performance into one statistic, that Game 1 of the Finals, but given the setting of the NBA Finals, that performance deserves the number one position.
LeBron has owned the Toronto Raptors and continued to do so in 2018, sweeping them and eliminating them despite their #1 seed in the East. As crazy as it sounds, Game 2 @ Tor was only James’ 7th highest scoring game of the playoffs. But, combined with 14 assists, his most in these playoffs, and 8 rebounds, the Cavs eliminated the Raptors by 18 points. LeBron in this game had a +/- of +20 while on the court. LeBron’s performance, and the way he went about it by draining insanely difficult shots, crushed the Raptors spirit. It’s rare that any one person can do that in one series, let alone to the same team over the course of three or four years. Yet, that’s what LeBron has done to Toronto. That domination and inability to break through will undoubtedly shape the Raptors’ 2018 offseason; doing that to a team is one of the most impressive things a player can do.
3. Game 5 @ Indiana — Win: 41 minutes, 44 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists, 15/15 (100%) FT %
On the road, tied 2–2, searching for a go-ahead win, LeBron James made a huge shot, draining a dagger 3 straight up off of an inbounds pass. What was truly remarkable about that shot was the inevitability of it. Everyone inside the arena or watching it on TV knew that LeBron was going to get the last shot. Well, everyone except the Pacers who decided to only leave on man on LeBron for the last shot. I don’t think it would have made a difference. As soon as the ball was released and arcing towards the basket, I, along with many others, correctly assumed the game was over. When talking with others about Michael Jordan, the feeling I most frequently come away is that they always believed anything he shot was going in. That’s how I felt about LeBron on that game-winner.
That game was remarkable in another way. The Cavs won it by 3 points because of that three that LeBron made. A big reason that that shot put them over the top though, was because LeBron’s free throw shooting kept them in the game. LeBron made all 15 out of 15 free throws he attempted in this game; that’s important because, in the regular season, LeBron was a 73.1% free throw shooter. Based off of that percentage, he would have been expected to make only 11 of 15 free throws. In that scenario, the Cavs lose the game and likely the series by giving Indiana two more shots to close it out. And so, in a crucial game, one that swung the Cavs’ playoff hopes, LeBron conquered his Achilles’ heel, even if for just one night to advance. That’s what people call “clutch,” well, also that game-winning 3-pointer.
4. Game 3 vs Toronto — Win: 41 minutes, 38 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals
On the surface, a two-point win at home versus Toronto with (by LeBron’s standard) relatively mediocre counting stats, isn’t really THAT impressive. Yeah, until you remember that THIS is the shot he made to win. A running, fade-away one-legged, banked, left-handed mid-range jumper. That’s an absurdly difficult shot, even without a defender draped all over you in an NBA playoff game. LeBron made it look like he playing backyard basketball by himself, seeing what kind of trick shots he could pull off next.
One thing that LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kyrie Irving all share in common is their ability to play a little game inside of a game. LeBron does weird, difficult shots; Steph takes 35 footers; Kyrie does insane stuff with his dribbling ability to create chaos. Except, that almost always in a regular season game! Not in the NBA playoffs! LeBron’s comfort level with all manner of shots that most NBA players wouldn’t dream of even attempting is astounding. He’s been learning and practicing for years. When he makes a shot like the one he did in Game 3, there’s nothing you do, but shake your head in disbelief.
5. Game 7 @ Boston — Win: 48 minutes, 35 points, 15 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 blocks
When I initially started this exercise, I had this game slotted #2, behind Game 1 of the Finals. To play all 48 minutes, on the road, in an elimination game, against Boston, arguably LeBron’s greatest rival and Eastern Conference thorn in his side, and come out with a win is amazing. Topping it off with (just) 35 points, 15 rebounds, and 9 assists is crazy! It’s unprecedented!
The more I looked at each game though, I couldn’t ignore the degree of difficulty involved in the previous 3 games. In each one, something stood out that elevated it above this one. However, even as I am writing this, I’m not 100% confident I made the correct ranking putting Game 7 in Boston at 5th. Such is LeBron’s greatness in these playoffs. Oh well.
6. Game 2 vs Indiana — Win: 39 minutes, 46 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 17/24 (70.80%) FG %
Coming off of a surprising Game 1 vs Indiana, the Cavs needed to take Game 2. With the series’ first two games being played in Cleveland, almost no one thought the Pacers would drive the Cavs to 7 games or have a legit chance to win. After a terrible Game 1 loss, the Cavs responded, winning by 3 despite a masterful LeBron game. That quickly became the theme of the postseason for the Cavs; on nights where LeBron didn’t put up 40+, the Cavs struggled to win games. Games 1 & 2 of the Indiana series, a loss and narrow win despite LeBron’s heroics, were the first indication that this title run might be harder than the last 3.
Game 2 vs Indiana had a Game Score of 40.9, which ranks it as LeBron’s 3rd best game of the playoffs when you look solely at the numbers. Despite the pressure, for LeBron from the media, that came with being down 1–0, it’s not comparable to Game 1 of the NBA Finals. And Game 2 of the Toronto series, with 14 assists, was a display of pure dominance. LeBron didn’t have that dominance against Indiana, which dinged him in a small way.
7. Game 6 vs Boston — Win: 46 minutes, 46 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals, 5/7 (71.4%) 3P %
This game, and series as a whole, was fascinating and one of the best LeBron’s played (I’ve written that a lot here in this article, haven’t I? Maybe I’m onto something). Scoring, rebounding, involving teammates, and defense. LeBron showed out in every facet of the game here. He hit two big threes, back-to-back step back over Jayson Tatum in the same spot on the floor, to help stave off elimination.
In some ways, Game 6 only served to set the table for Game 7 of the Boston series. We knew that LeBron had a way of “resting” on defense and conserving his energy, but that topic was not on the national radar. At least until he played 94 minutes in two games with just one day off. James has started to revolutionize the way we talk about player rest and did so while proving that it works, winning two games against the #2 seed to fend off elimination and advance to his eighth straight NBA Finals.
8. Game 7 vs Indiana — Win: 43 minutes, 45 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, 2/3 (66.7%) 3P %
In the second of five games in which he and the Cavs faced elimination, LeBron James scored a casual 45 points to drive Cleveland to a 4 point win. It is so hard for me to fathom that I would ever be able to rank a playoff game in which a player scored 45 points as just his eighth best of that playoff run. Alas, that is what I’m doing and I do it shaking my head in acknowledgment.
Earlier, we talked about the seeming inevitability of LeBron making a game-winner shot and that extended to both Game 7s, against Indiana and Boston. Going into those games, I felt as if there was no way for LeBron to lose. He showed us a level of control these playoffs that I find difficult to comprehend. Indiana never really stood a chance here. If LeBron scores 45 points while shooting 64% from the field, you aren’t winning, unless you’re the Golden State Warriors that is.
9. Game 2 @ Boston — Loss: 38 minutes, 42 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists, 5/11 (45.5%) 3P %
Game 2 in Boston is the second loss of LeBron’s to make this list. It’s just so hard for me to ignore a 42/10/12 triple-double that come with efficient 3-point shooting, even in a 13 point loss. The rest of the Cavaliers let LeBron down in this game. I mean, they did do that a lot, but this one was especially egregious. Had the Cavs won this game, on the road to tie the series, it would have easily been #2, behind his unsurpassable Game 1 of the Finals.
10. Game 4 vs Boston — Win: 41 minutes, 44 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 17/28 (60.7%) FG %, 7 turnovers
This is where the otherworldly, video-game type numbers and game start to end (As I write this, I realize that LeBron did score 44 points in this game). Where most of his games to this point were nearly flawless, every game from here on out has its warts. Even in this game, LeBron turned the ball over 7 times and only dished out 3 assists, his lowest of these playoffs. Not that it mattered because the Cavs tied the Celtics 2–2 and they eventually went on to win the series. It was a game that would be a career-defining performance for 95% of the NBA, but for LeBron James, it’s just a regular Game 4 in the playoffs.
11. Game 4 @ Indiana — Win: 46 minutes, 32 minutes, 13 rebounds, 7 assists
One thing that shocked me as I returned to these games was that the Cavs really shouldn’t have won this series with Indiana. All of their wins were by 3, 4, 3, and 4 points. Their losses? By 18, 2, and 34! Replace LeBron, even with another superstar like Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Cavs lose, probably in six games.
LeBron, though, just did his thing, playing 46 minutes to foreshadow the Boston series and got a crucial win. With the series tied at 2–2, LeBron was back in control, even if he did have to win 2 out of 3 games.
12. Game 3 vs Golden State — Loss: 46 minutes, 33 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks
Beyond Game 1 of the Finals, and beyond his broken or sprained or whatever hand, Game 3 was the Cavs’ last chance to give the Warriors a fight. Game 2 was ugly; the Cavs were playing in a JR Smith induced haze and failed to be competitive. In Game 3, as LeBron put up a triple-double, it looked as if they may steal a win on their home court. However, the Cavs were unable to weather the Warriors’ second-half strength and lost by ten. This was one of six games in which LeBron posted a shooting percentage under 50%; the Cavs only won one of those six games (It was the one against the Raptors, duh). So whether or not LeBron’s hand was affecting his shooting, his below average shooting was a big part of the Cavaliers loss that put them in a hopeless 3–0 hole.
13. Game 1 @ Toronto — Win (OT): 46 minutes, 26 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists
Much like Game 3 vs Golden State, LeBron shot under 50% from the field and posted a triple-double. Much different, the Cavaliers won this game. Granted, it was in overtime and it was by just one point. However, this game ranks lower because, fairly or unfairly (probably unfairly), I decided to ding LeBron for missing a game-winner in regulation. LeBron has personally tormented the Raptors for years and, in Game 1, it looked as if they might break through. At least, until LeBron decided to step on their necks and take away everything they had. Toronto was broken after Game 1 because LeBron, who didn’t play flawlessly, played a good enough game to steal home court.