There has been much conjecture about South Florida’s obsession with these NBA Finals, a fanaticism best encapsulated by the Nielsen numbers, which have shown that this area is more interested in the NBA Finals than any but those with a participating team — the latest coming in the form of a 20.2 overnight rating, much higher (15.8) than the average Dolphins game.
This is about more than hate.
It’s also about this:
LeBron James is still pretty great.
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He’s still, on more than just a given night, the greatest in the game.
It wouldn’t sting so much for South Florida if he were anything else.
He provided a reminder in Game 5 on Monday, recording 41 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists to, at least temporarily, stave elimination against the Golden State Warriors, with Game 6 coming Thursday. And while he had help on this night — with Kyrie Irving matching his point total — the performance probably should secure him the MVP in this series, win or lose, especially since Stephen Curry frequently seems a shell of the shooter who has shell-shocked the NBA.
But here’s what is most remarkable about James’ latest masterpiece, which came in a building where the Warriors had been 50-3, and which negated the latest narrative, that his jumper and spirit are broken.
It wasn’t automatically his best.
Or even unequivocally in the top five.
According to Basketball-Reference.com’s complex “game score” formula, it actually did sneak into the fifth spot among his 197 playoff appearances, 129 of which he has won, with that win percentage of .655 ranking much closer to Michael Jordan’s (.665) than you might expect. So, by the way, are their composite statsheets; James is now at 27.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists while shooting 47.8 percent, compared to Jordan averaging 33.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists while shooting 46.2 percent. James has a 28-8 series record; Magic Johnson was 32-8, Jordan was 30-8 and Larry Bird was 22-9.
There’s something else that might surprise you. Of the four games that the measure deemed better, only one came while with the Heat, and it wasn’t his gargantuan Game 6 in Boston in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, when he scored 45 and had 15 rebounds with nothing less than every historical evaluation of the Heat’s Big 3 era on the line. Rather, it was when he tallied 49, and was irritated with himself for missing a score-rounding free throw, in a Game 4 second-round win in Brooklyn. Nor is his most hallowed Cavaliers effort in the top three, the time in 2007 when he merely scored 29 of Cleveland’s last 30 points, and 48 in all, in Auburn Hills, Michigan, to put the Cavaliers ahead of the petulant Pistons, 3-2.
That one is ranked eighth.
Third came in Chicago in Game 4 of the 2010 first round — 37 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists as the Cavaliers took a 3-1 lead.
Second came in Atlanta in Game 3 of the 2009 second round — 47 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists to go up 3-0.
That’s the only one of his top 15 playoff “game score” outings to come in a loss — 49 points on 20-of-30 shooting in Game 1 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals in Cleveland against the Magic. The Cavaliers also came up short in the series, in six games, though James dominated every defender.
“My numbers were ridiculous,” James recalled to me last season. “And they called Mickael Pietrus the LeBron stopper at the time, too. I averaged like, 40.”
He actually averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists while shooting 48.7 percent. Still, memories of individual numbers fade over time, so it just got folded into the narrative that he couldn’t get his team to the top. Just as, if the Cavaliers lose this series in six or seven games, all you will hear about is James’ 2-5 record in the Finals, and how unfavorably that compares to Jordan’s impeccable 6-0.
That’s no more fair, however, than it was when South Florida cheered for James. In reality, James is to blame for just one of his teams’ NBA Finals failures, when he mentally froze and emotionally flopped against the Mavericks in 2011; incidentally, five of his 11-worst NBA Finals “Game Scores” (out of 38) came in that series. You’ll never forget it, for sure. But you will also never forget what he did in Boston in 2012 when the Heat needed it most, which looked a lot like what he did Monday night in Oakland, which looked a lot like what he has done in other elimination games (31.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 52. 1 perfect), even as some still prefer to comically color him as a playoff choker.
And, much as you might no longer like him, you have seen enough not to love your odds against him. Which is why South Florida will see this to the end, in record numbers for a series not featuring its team, in numbers that suggest this is a basketball town like never before. So, even if he doesn’t win a championship for Cleveland, this can’t be denied: LeBron James continues to cement his legacy in this area, fixated eyeball upon eyeball.