LeBron James is the best player in the game of basketball and arguably the greatest player of all time. While he has always been supremely talented, he wasn’t always
On Thursday, May 31, 2007 the Cleveland Cavaliers were attempting to take over the crown as the best team in the Eastern Conference. The Detroit Pistons were making their fifth consecutive appearance in the conference finals, and had figured out how to win, including winning the Finals in 2004. In the 2006 postseason, Detroit knocked off Cleveland coming back from down three games to two in the conference semi-finals.
2007 was a different story, and the reason that story was told differently was thanks to one of the greatest basketball performances the NBA has ever seen.
“This is Jordan-esque!” – TNT’s Steve Kerr on the performance of LeBron James in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals.
The story was different because in 2006, the best player in the NBA was not LeBron James, but on May 31, 2007, LeBron James took throne as the game’s greatest player with arguably his best performance of his career.
In the first 41:50 of the game, LeBron played well. At that point he had a line of 19 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists in 34:08 on the court. James was playing well enough to win, but was not willing his team to victory. He was playing his usual game, something fans of the Cavs and the NBA had seen plenty of times.
The last 16:10 of the game was when LeBron arrived on the scene. Up until that point in his career, the knock on him was that he didn’t know how to win the big game, he was afraid of the last shot, and that he was too young. That all changed down the stretch of this game.
If you cut the box score down to strictly the last 16:10 of the game, LeBron’s line reads: 11-14 from the floor, 2-2 from behind the arc, 5-9 from the charity stripe, one steal, zero turnovers, 29 points.
As impressive and incredible as that box score is, it fails to tell the entire story by itself. The shots, and the scenarios in which LeBron was knocking them down, were something out of a movie.
6:06 Remaining in Q4: The stretch started out with James grabbing a missed shot by Detroit’s Richard Hamilton. Hamilton may have been fouled on the other end, but he didn’t draw a whistle. After grabbing the board, James brought the ball up the right side of the floor before cutting to the middle and burying a jumper at the top of the key. This shot was relatively open and nothing special, but it was the beginning of an incredible performance.
CLEVELAND LEADS 81-78
3:47 Remaining Q4: Following LeBron’s jumper to give the Cavaliers the 81-78 lead Detroit storms back with an 8-0 run. During this stretch James only takes one shot, that is blocked by Rasheed Wallace. Mike Brown calls a timeout at this point to regroup. Following the timeout, the Cavaliers immediately turned the ball over and committed a foul putting Hamilton at the line for Detroit. He knocked both down capping a 10-0 run for Detroit.
DETROIT LEADS 88-81
2:49 Remaining Q4: This is the true start of 23’s takeover. The Pistons had been trapping Daniel Gibson at the ball as he crossed the halfcourt line during their run. James took control and brought the ball up. With Hamilton guarding him he crossed him to the right wing before cutting down the center of the lane. Hamilton committed the foul on James and 23 was able to complete the basket. The play was simply described by TNT’s Kerr as “Wow, this is pure power.” James missed the free throw that would have completed the three point play. Sasha Pavlovic grabbed the offensive rebound. The set ended with Drew Gooden driving down the lane before drawing a foul and heading to the line. Gooden split the pair and from this point on no other Cavalier would score in the game.
DETROIT LEADS 88-84
2:18 Remaining Q4: The Cavaliers are clawing their way back into the game now. After cutting their deficit to four on the previous offensive trip they buckled down on defense and got a stop. After Gooden grabbed the rebound off a Hamilton miss, James was fed the ball and no other Cavalier touched it the rest of the possession. This is going to become a common theme throughout the rest of the game. James brought the ball up, found himself at the top of the key and knocked down a 3 in rhythm. This put LeBron at 26 points for the game and was the beginning of his 25 in a row.
DETROIT LEADS 88-87
1:52 Remaining Q4: On the following possession Detroit looks of an opportunity to stem the tide of the Cavs’ run. Billups, known for being a big shot maker, came around a pick down the center of the lane. Eric Snow was able to stick his hand in and poke the ball lose. James recovered the loose ball and went to the rim. He was fouled by Rasheed Wallace putting him on the line. LeBron missed both freebies and Detroit was awarded possession after the ball was poked out of bounds.
DETROIT LEADS 88-87
:54.2 Remaining 4Q: Cleveland is still on a 6-0, however they have now gone two consecutive possessions without a score. On the previous possession Gooden took a jumper in the middle of the paint that couldn’t find its way home. Detroit grabs the rebound and calls timeout after advancing into the front court.
DETROIT LEADS 88-87
:43.0 Remaining 4Q: After their timeout the Pistons isolate Wallace on Anderson Varejao. Varejao defends this well forcing a turnover for the third possession in a row. The Cavaliers then call timeout.
DETROIT LEADS 88-87
:31.5 Remaining 4Q: Following the timeout the Cavaliers need a score to take the lead. Obviously the ball was going to be in the hands of James. Jason Maxiell of Detroit was put in a really unfair position here attempting to stop James. With the ball pounding at the top of the key, LeBron gets Maxiell going left before crossing back over to his right and heading down the right side of the key. James finished this play with a thunderous dunk and gave the Cavaliers their first lead since the 6:06 mark of the 4th.
Side note: This is one of my all time favorite plays because Tayshaun Prince attempts to help on LeBron as he’s thundering down the lane but decides that it’s probably best if he would just get out of the way and let what’s going to happen, happen. Prince made a business decision to not end up on a poster, but instead looked like he was actually scared to death of LeBron James, which I think might be even better than a poster.
CLEVELAND LEADS 89-88
:23.0 Remaining 4Q: I mentioned earlier that Chauncey Billups had a knack for knocking down shots in big moments. This was one of them. Following James’ dunk, the Pistons, more specifically Billups, bring the ball up the floor. The draw up a simply isolation play for Billups being covered by Gibson. (This was a very similar shot to what Kyrie hit over Steph Curry in the Finals.) Billups calmly buries the 3 to put Detroit back in front in the closing seconds.
DETROIT LEADS 91-88
:09.6 Remaining 4Q: “Anything you can do, I can do better.” – LeBron James on Chauncey Billups knocking down a huge shot, probably. The Cavs called timeout following Billups’ bucket and drew up the best play that Mike Brown had in his arsenal. Give LeBron James the ball and everyone else get the hell out of the way. James pounded the ball on the right wing while covered by Prince, who happened to make the All-Defense team that year. James powered his way past Prince for another ferocious dunk to tie the game up with under 10 seconds to play. There was no stopping him at this point. James has now scored the last seven points for Cleveland.
Side note: LeBron nearly hit his head on the backboard on this dunk, which is incredible and deserves appreciation in its own right.
TIE GAME 91-91
END OF 4Q: The Pistons have one last chance to win the game in regulation, and who better to take the shot than Chanucey Billups. Detroit essentially draws up the same play he hit the previous 3 on, but at the top of the key instead. Eric Snow defends this one better than Gibson did and the ball rims out. We’re headed for some free playoff basketball.
TIE GAME 91-91
4:47 Remaining OT1: The Cavaliers won the tip for the first overtime and they reverted to running Mike Brown’s best offensive set again. James went directly to the hole and drew a foul from Prince. Detroit wasn’t happy that this was called, and truthfully it might not have deserved a whistle. Unbothered by Detroit’s argument, James calmly knocks down both from the charity stripe and puts the Cavaliers back in front.
CLEVELAND LEADS 93-91
3:32 Remaining OT1: After James knocked down both free throws the Pistons went on a 4-0 run to retake a two-point lead. The Pistons had gone to their trapping defense that they employed during their 10-0 run in the 4th and the Cavaliers had no choice but to try and take LeBron off the ball. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had the ball on the right elbow with his back to the basket and James made a quick cut past Prince for the slam.
TIE GAME 95-95
0:33.2 Remaining OT1: The Cavs and Pistons have traded free throws at this point which has resulted in a Cleveland 98-96 lead. Following a Pistons turnover, Cleveland has a giant opportunity to win the game, or at least make it much more difficult on Detroit. Brown’s best play makes another appearance with LeBron nailing the toughest shot he has taken to this point. James is being covered tightly by Billups for the majority of the possession (since Prince struggled). After Varejao comes to the top to set a screen for James, the Pistons essentially decide to double James and let Varejao roll free. Instead of this resulting in James finding an open Varejao, it results in James burying an incredibly difficult shot just inside the arc on the right wing. He was doubled by Billups and Maxiell and essentially dribbled into an area occupied by Wallace. He had no business making this shot, but he stuck it. James has now scored 16 in a row and 20 of the last 21 for Cleveland. Shot difficulty 7.5/10
CLEVELAND LEADS 100-96
0:03.1 Remaining OT1: The Cavs sent Wallace to the free throw line to bring the game within two with 30 seconds left. The following Cavalier possession resulted in a missed jumper by LeBron. Detroit then got back to the line, this time Billups knocked down both free throws to tie the game. Snow’s half-court heave was no good and double-overtime was on the docket. LeBron James scored all 9 points for the Cavaliers in the first overtime session. No other Cavalier has scored since the 2:49 mark of regulation.
TIE GAME 100-100
4:30 Remaining OT2: The second overtime begins in similar fashion to the first, with the ball in James’ hands and everyone else getting out of the way. James continues to up the difficulty meter by burying a tightly contested step-back jumper right in the face of Prince in the left corner. Shot difficulty: 8.3/10
CLEVELAND LEADS 102-100
3:11 Remaining OT2: The Cavaliers failed to score on this possession, but I just wanted to point out that someone other than James took a shot. Pavolvic missed a jumper in the right corner and this was the first time that someone other than James attempted a shot from the field since roughly one minute remaining in the 4th when Gooden missed a jumper. Pavolvic decides that it would be a good idea to take a shot on the next possession with Detroit having a two point lead. It did not go in. Side note: the last Cavalier made field goal from someone other than James was an Ilgauskas jumper with just below eight minutes remaining in regulation. That makes this even more mind-blowing.
DETROIT LEADS 104-102
1:51 Remaining OT2: With the Pistons holding a two point edge and James struggling to have the ability to get to the hole at this point (in part due to Gibson fouling out), he’s had to knock down outside shots. On this possession he buries his toughest to date. James is guarded by Billups at the top of the key. He starts off going left before sending a behind the back dribble to his right and shooting directly off the dribble. The shot is as pure as it gets and incredibly difficult. Moving to the shooting side makes this extremely tough, and picking up the dribble off of a behind the back move makes it even tougher. Shot difficulty: 9.5/10 – Side note: Don’t quote me on this, but following this shot is what I remember as the earliest version of LeBron’s signature celebration, “The Silencer.”
TIE GAME 104-104
1:29 Remaining OT2: Chris Webber draws a foul on Z and is granted continuation on a relatively easy jumper. He then knocks down the free throw to make it a 107-104 lead for the Pistons. After Webber’s free throw the Pistons would fail to score again.
DETROIT LEADS 107-104
1:16 Remaining OT2: LeBron decided that he enjoyed his game of “anything you can do, I can do better” with Billups earlier that he might as well play it with Webber now. After a Varejao pick on Billups to free up James, Webber and Billups are both pressuring him. He makes his way to the left wing and nails a 3 to tie the game right in Webber’s face. The 3 prompted the comments from Kerr calling this performance unbelievable and Jordan-esque. James has now scored 23 in a row and 27 of the last 28 for Cleveland.
TIE GAME 107-107
0:02.2 Remaining OT2: The Cavaliers get a stop on the defensive end and have the ball with 11.4 remaining and only one option to cap off this incredible night, and that’s drawing up Brown’s best play one last time. James receives the inbounds pass near the mid-court line with Billups covering him. He waits for the clock to drift down to six seconds before attacking the rim. He encounters four of the five Pistons’ defenders before somehow sneaking the ball up and in off the glass to break the game’s 16th tie and creating the 22nd and final lead change. This moment was more significant than just taking the lead for good, but the moment the ball went through the rim was the exact moment LeBron James became the best basketball player on the planet.
CAVALIERS WIN 109-107, 2OT.
While the Cavaliers ultimately were swept in the Finals by the Spurs a week following this game, this moment put LeBron on the map as the best player in the NBA. That title is one that he hasn’t relinquished since.