CLEVELAND: There was a time, before the championship rings and parades, one of the looming questions over LeBron James was whether or not he is a clutch player who could be counted on in big moments in games.
There was a time when James didn’t always perform well in the moment, but those days are getting more and more difficult to remember now. James’ first game-winner this season Saturday night carried the Cavs to a 90-88 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, but James proved long ago he’s bigger than the moment.
James leads the league in scoring when games are in the final minute and the score is within three points — the most important time of games. He is shooting 50 percent in such situations and his 17 points are the most in the league. Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook is second with 15 points.
James’ three assists in those moments are also tops in the league, meaning he had a hand in eight baskets during the final minute of tight games. No one else is close. Westbrook, despite being a point guard, doesn’t have an assist yet in such moments.
James’ game and arsenal have both evolved over the years. His typical go-to move is an explosive attack of the basket or a pull-up jumper, but Saturday he opted for a hook shot/floater over Brook Lopez in the lane. It was the first time he could recall using such a shot to win a game and left Quicken Loans Arena convinced Lopez never saw it coming.
“Brook did not think in his wildest years I was going to shoot that one,” James said. “I got to my spot where I wanted to get to and I just trusted what I’ve always done. I work on those shots. I work on my game a lot. And I just floated it up. Sometimes it’s a little easier when you get someone bigger because you got to get it over top of them.”
James’ game winner was the latest in a pattern of big shots during last season’s memorable playoff run. His winner in Game 4 during last season’s conference semifinals at Chicago — when he changed the play — was the third buzzer beater of his career in a postseason game. That’s the same number Michael Jordan had for his entire career, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
James provides the type of luxury few coaches can enjoy. The Cavs ran what looked like a 1-4 flat — a favorite of former coach Byron Scott’s when Kyrie Irving had the ball in his hands during big moments a few years ago.
Tristan Thompson popped up to set the screen, and James took care of the rest.
“Just the way I drew it up,” Blatt said. “Give it to No. 23.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs.