There is no question now that LeBron James is one of the greatest basketball players ever. You can measure that in individual brilliance, and also in team success. He’s got championships.
LeBron’s playoff career is packed wall-to-wall with astounding brilliance, and if you dig for his worst playoff performances ever — like, say, for a video series called The Worst — you will be amazed by how few substandard postseason performances he has on record.
That said, there are a few stinkers. And the stinkiest of the stinkers serves as a fascinating reminder of a different, less certain point in LeBron’s playoff history. LeBron’s mainstream reputation entering Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks is so different from what it is now.
He wasn’t yet a champion — in fact, he’d had a couple notable individual failures in pursuit of his first ring in Cleveland.
He wasn’t yet widely beloved — in fact, it was pretty popular to look down on the guy for leaving Cleveland to “take the easy way out” and form a “superteam” in Miami.
Within that context, James played one of the worst playoff games of his career. He was passive and deferent at times, over-aggressive and heavy-handed at others. His stats were terrible, and the Heat blew a fourth-quarter lead to lose Game 4, allowing the Mavs to tie the series at 2-2. And then Dallas won the whole thing, and LeBron had himself a very difficult summer. Purely in terms of basketball, it was the low point of his career.
This episode of The Worst plumbs that low point, because it was lower than you might recall, and because doing so helps us better appreciate how far he’s come, and how magnificently he has risen since that baaaaad bad period in 2011.