The demand placed on LeBron James is a simple one: Win playoff games by yourself, again and again. That’s all. And as if the San Antonio Spurs’ defensive scheme isn’t doing enough to prevent James from taking over in the NBA Finals, here comes history with the double-team.
Repeated statistical domination of games within a series is historically rare, the type of thing that happens, on average, about once every three years. It also can be indicative of a team that doesn’t have a strong enough supporting cast to win a championship and is overly dependent on a lone star.
I sought a statistical measure for stars delivering multiple spectacular games within a series and looked at series over the past 28 years of the playoffs in which All-Star players had game scores of 30 or higher at least three times.
Game score is a number created by John Hollinger that incorporates points, field goal shooting, free throw shooting, rebounds, steals, assists, blocked shots, fouls and turnovers. (The formula can be found in this glossary.) A game score of 10 is average, 20 is good, 30 is great. Forty and above is the stuff of legends.
Game scores of 30 are hard to come by. LeBron was the story of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, when he had 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists, but that netted him a game score of only 21.7. Missing three of four free throws didn’t help, but if you think about it he played a great second half, not a great game. This wasn’t the start-to-finish effort of Game 6 in Boston last season, when LeBron had a game score of 36.4.
Game score isn’t perfect. Its emphasis on efficiency creates what I believe is a too-harsh penalty for missed field goals and missed free throws. But it does reflect all-around impact, and allows players who flourish in a variety of categories to be accounted for. Also, this isn’t a comprehensive list, because the website Basketball-reference.com only has full game score records going back to the 1985-86 season. My cutoff of 30 for purposes of this comparison might seem too arbitrary as well. For example, it meant leaving out Dwyane Wade’s 2006 NBA Finals, when he had game scores of 32.6, 32.5 and ... 29.8. But I had to draw the line somewhere, and this makes the list even more exclusive.
Besides, any analysis that leaves Michael Jordan on top can’t be too far off, right? And this might be as good an empirical argument for Jordan as greatest player as you can find. Other players have more rings or more points in their careers. In this stat, Jordan is two and a half times better than his next-closest competitors. Jordan had five playoff series in which he had game scores of 30 or more at least three times. No one else has done it more than twice. Also, Jordan had series with five game scores of 30 two times; no one else has done that even once.
For LeBron, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan, their three-30 series came in years in which they won the MVP award. Their regular-season excellence carried into the postseason, turning these game scores into snapshots of superstars at their peak.
A player who produced one of these series in a year he did not win the MVP was Hakeem Olajuwon. And the two events were definitely connected. After watching David Robinson receive the trophy in a pregame ceremony, Olajuwon set out to prove he should have been the winner ... and produced some devastating numbers in the process.
His other entry came in 1986 and was notable because it came in his second year in the league -- the earliest of any player in this group.
If you’re wondering where Kobe Bryant is, he’s right here, from the 2010 conference finals against the Phoenix Suns.
The one name you might not have expected to see here? Amar’e Stoudemire, on the strength of a 2005 series against the Dallas Mavericks.