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We remember LeBron James' bad games because he has so few of them

James is coming off an 11-point performance in Game 3, but the truth is he hardly ever plays poorly in the postseason.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James spent the first 10 games this postseason looking like he needed to be playing in a league better than the NBA. Then, in Game 3 against the Celtics, he unexpectedly disappeared in a last-second loss despite the Cavaliers leading for basically three full quarters.

It was notable for one enormous reason: Games like this hardly ever happen for him.

James is hurtling towards Derek Fisher, who holds the record for most playoff games played. He needs at least a couple more deep playoff runs, but he’s poised to be No. 7 all time by the time this year ends (barring a Finals sweep). He’s going to end up with around 218 or 219 games played in the postseason, most likely, putting him 39 or 40 games back of Fisher.

That’s a lot of games, a lot of minutes, a lot of chances to mess up. Through 10 games, James was even better than usual — in fact, those around him said he is literally just that. That premise still holds true after the Game 3 dud, of course, but it was bizarre: James scored just 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting with six rebounds, six assists, and six turnovers.

Game 3 was the third-worst playoff game of James’ career. Let’s talk about the other two.

The essential uses a metric called “game score” created by John Hollinger, the pioneer of NBA advanced statistics and now vice president of basketball operations with the Memphis Grizzlies. You can see the formula here, if you’re interested, but it’s a rough method for analyzing a player’s performance in a single game based on his counting stats. It’s not perfect — you can’t really gauge defense beyond steals and blocks — but it’ll work for this exercise.

Only twice has James finished with a negative game score, both listed here.

  • Game 1, 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals vs. Celtics: 12 points, 2-of-18 shooting, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 10 turnovers, -0.7 game score
  • Game 5, 2014 Eastern Conference finals vs. Pacers: 7 points, 2-of-10 shooting, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 turnovers, -0.1 game score

I originally saw “Eastern Conference semifinals vs. Celtics” and assumed it was that game. You know, the second-to-last game he played during his first stint in a Cavaliers uniform, the one everyone said he quit. But no, this was two years prior in a series that the Cavaliers eventually lost in seven games. In Game 7 of this series, James scored 45 points with five rebounds, six assists, and only two turnovers. Cleveland somehow still lost.

James strangely was a wreck in that potential closeout Game 5 against Indiana, but Miami responded with a 25-point blowout in Game 6.

Besides those two games, six others fall under a game score of 10, which is considered an average game by this metric. In 210 postseason games and counting, James has been less than average in eight of them.

Just eight.

The third-worst was Sunday’s Game 3 against the Celtics, and that final Cavaliers game in 2010 ranked seventh-worst. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert actually claimed James quit that entire series, not just Game 5. Here’s the quote from

"He quit," Gilbert said. "Not just in Game 5, but in Games 2, 4 and 6. Watch the tape. The Boston series was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar."

The Cavaliers were beaten by 32 points in Game 5. During the game, James appeared distracted and uninterested, often glaring at Cleveland's coaches as the Cavs tried to foul to get back into the game in the second half. James also made some puzzling postgame comments, saying he had "spoiled" people with his play over seven seasons.

That claim is not remotely true. In a Game 6 loss that ended the series, James had a 27-point, 19-rebound, and 10-assist triple-double. For the series, he averaged 26.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.3 blocks on 45 percent shooting.

The other series that James is widely criticized for is the 2011 Finals.

Despite remarkably thin depth and two makeshift starters, Miami easily cruised through the first three rounds of the 2011 playoffs off the strength of the Big Three. In those first three series, James was great. It was only when they reached the finals against the Dallas Mavericks that his numbers began to dip.

LeBron’s 2011 postseason averages, before Finals vs. during Finals

STAT 2011 playoffs 2011 finals
STAT 2011 playoffs 2011 finals
points 26 17.8
rebounds 8.9 7.2
assists 5.5 6.8
steals 1.7 1.7
blocks 1.5 0.5
FG% 46 48
3PT% 37 32

The biggest problem wasn’t James’ bad play, though, but that he was much more average than ever before. The worst example was Game 4, when James scored the second-lowest points total of his postseason career: eight points, 3-of-11 shooting, nine rebounds, seven assists, and two steals. It filled up the box score, but nobody cared about that when Miami lost 86-83.

In the table above, the one stat that James saw tick up was his assists per game, which makes sense. Dallas played a bewildering mix of zone and man defense that seemed to get into James’ head, lulling him into passive play. There’s no such thing as a “LeBron stopper,” but Shawn Marion was one of the best attempts at such a player that we’ve ever seen. It all culminated in the most forgettable series James has ever played.

We remember these bad LeBron moments because they’re so infrequent.

We also remember them because they happened so recently, and because the hot take landscape has developed into what it is today. James isn’t perfect and his occasionally spotty games show that. But hey, neither was Michael Jordan.

Without turning this into a debate about which one was better, it’s notable that Jordan had six games with a game score under 10. He shot 3 of 18 down 2-0 to the Knicks in 1993 and only managed 6-of-19 shooting in the 1996 Finals against Seattle. It’s easy to whitewash Jordan’s occasional mortal moments because they’re all so far removed. In many cases, the legend of Jordan persists over everything else.

Those disappointing games from James are still flaws in his career, but they only stand out because there are so few of them.