LeBron James’ NBA Finals performance last year is already the stuff of basketball legend -- the sort of performance fans of the sport will be talking about with their children 30 years from now.
After 2015's Game 1, his Cleveland Cavaliers were down both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and no one thought LeBron had a shot against Stephen Curry and the fully functioning Golden State Warriors. The question at that point became not whether they could win, but when they would lose. That was not an insult to James, either -- just a realistic assessment of a dire situation in Ohio.
And then, LeBron all but literally put the Cavaliers on his back, putting together one of the most dominant stretches in playoff basketball history.
His team eventually lost in six games to a superior Warriors team, but James averaged an unconscionable 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists over those six contests. Headlines like "No hyperbole: LeBron James on brink of greatest Finals performance ever" and "LeBron James May Go Down As The Greatest Loser Ever" popped up all over the internet, and many people believed James deserved to become the first player since Jerry West in 1969 to take home the NBA Finals MVP for a losing performance (James ended up pulling in four of the 11 official votes).
At the time, it felt as if he could never top the heroism he displayed on the court over those six games. And then, almost exactly a year later, he did.
The Cavaliers are suddenly on the precipice of basketball history, becoming the first Finals team since 1966 to reach Game 7 after falling down down 3-1 to start the series after a win on Thursday night. Through six games, each team has scored exactly 610 points, and Kyrie Irving has cemented his status as a star.
But make no mistake: This is LeBron's series, and somehow, he has played even better than he did last year. He is averaging more points, more assists, more steals, more blocks and more minutes than anyone on either team, and he's tied for first with Tristan Thompson in rebounds. (Damn you, Tristan!)
If that's not enough for you, that's understandable. James has long been stuffing every area of the stat sheet. But let's consider how this year's performance stacks up against last year's for him:
- 45.7 minutes per game (vs 40.9 minutes)
- 35.8 points per game (vs 30.2 points)
- 13.3 rebounds per game (vs 11.3 rebounds)
- 8.8 assists per game (vs 8.5 assists)
- 1.3 steals per game (vs 2.7 steals)
- 0.5 blocks per game (vs 2.2 blocks)
- 47.7 true shooting percentage (vs 57.8 true shooting percentage)
Despite playing five fewer minutes per game, LeBron, 31, is somehow averaging a significantly higher number of blocks and steals and an essentially equal number of assists. He is shooting significantly better all around. And while his 30 points per game and 11 rebounds are slightly down from last year, they must be considered in the context of Irving scoring 27.3 points per game beside him, and Thompson pulling down 11.3 rebounds.
Take a look at fancier aggregate statistics, which analysts have created to sum up a player's production in a single number, and LeBron's performance looks even better compared to last year's. His Player Impact Estimate (an all-encompassing NBA.com stat that measures "a player's overall statistical contribution") has risen to 23.1 from 21.0 in last year's finals, and his Game Score ("a rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game" developed by the well-respected John Hollinger) has risen to 27.1 from 24.6, per Basketball-Reference.com.
A large reason for the spike has come in the last two games, when LeBron willed his team to consecutive victories with two historic performances. In Game 5, James put together 41 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals and 3 rebounds in 43 minutes. In Game 6, he amassed 41 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks in the same amount of time. During one 15-minute stretch in the second half of Game 6, James scored or assisted on 35 of his team's 36 points.
How good are those numbers? Well, the last player to score 40 points in two consecutive finals games was Shaquille O'Neal in 2000. Before that, it was Michael Jordan in 1993. That's impressive enough of course, but if we pull all of James' statistics together via the aforementioned Game Score statistic, James' performances in Game 5 and Game 6 look unquestionably and eye-poppingly historic. In fact, they rank as two of the three best Finals performances since 1984, as Kelly Scaletta first noted. Read that again: James' last two games have been two of the three best Finals performances ever.
Whatever happens on Sunday, whether or not the Cavaliers end up taking home the championship, LeBron has already done something none of us expected would ever happen: He has topped himself.