In Sunday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics, LeBron James had an outing to forget. For the Cavaliers star, though, that’s possibly the task he’s least capable of accomplishing, and he again showed off his impressive memory following Cleveland’s 108-83 loss to Boston.
At the postgame news conference, a reporter noted that the Cavs, having fallen behind by as much as 28 points in the first half, had closed the gap to 14 entering the fourth quarter, only to give up a 7-0 run to start the period that all but iced the contest. Asked what happened during that decisive stretch, James took the question very much at face value.
“What happened? The first possession, we ran them down all the way to two on the shot clock [it was actually eight seconds], Marcus Morris missed a jump shot, followed it up, they got a dunk,” James replied, and he was just getting started. The four-time NBA MVP did have a momentary lapse in memory by initially referring to teammate Jordan Clarkson as NBA journeyman Jordan Crawford, but he quickly corrected himself while noting that Clarkson missed a shot.
James’s summation of the first few possessions of the fourth quarter ended with him describing Boston’s Jayson Tatum as having gone “94 feet” with the ball before using “a Eurostep” to free himself for “a right-handed layup.” That was when the Cavs called a “timeout,” as James recalled, and he used the pause to signal the end of his narrative, at which point his performance was met with some amused applause.
Unfortunately for James, his performance during the game could produce applause only from Celtics fans, as he scored just 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting, including 0 for 5 from three-point range, in a little over 36 minutes. James did add seven rebounds, nine assists and two blocks, but he also committed seven turnovers and his plus/minus mark of negative-32 was tied for the worst in his lengthy postseason career.
If the lousy outing was a rarity for James, his demonstration of uncanny recall was less so. After a sweep of the Pacers in last year’s playoffs, he was asked about the playmaking help he’d gotten from then-teammate Deron Williams and offered this example:
“You saw that one possession where he swung it to me, I hit Channing [Frye], Channing swung it to him, he pump-faked Myles Turner, looked off Paul George, and laid it up.”
James then acknowledged what some in attendance were likely thinking at the time, saying, “It’s kind of crazy I can replay all the plays in my head, huh?”
In a 2014 story about James’s powers of recall, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst quoted a childhood friend of the future Hall of Famer as saying, “When you play [the video game] ‘Madden’ with him now you have to be careful which teams you take, because he will know what your game plans were in the past when you’ve played with him and he’ll pick the opposing team knowing what plays you want to run.”
“Look, we’re all professional basketball players, so when LeBron remembers something from a basketball game, even if it’s from a few years ago, it doesn’t exactly blow me away,” former Heat teammate Chris Bosh said in that article. “But it’s when he remembers other stuff, like stuff he shouldn’t even know, where you’re like, ‘What?!’ We’ll be watching a football game and he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, that cornerback was taken in the fourth round of the 2008 draft from Central Florida,’ or something. And I’ll be like, ‘How do you know that?’ And he’ll be like, ‘I can’t help it.’ ”
“He remembers everything,” James’s high school coach, Kenneth Dambrot, told USA Today in 2013. “What you have is a mix of unbelievable instincts and an ability to learn at a very fast rate, and so he can go back in his mind and analyze what they’re doing. I’ve been around a lot of players over the years, and there are a lot of guys who understand the game. I’ve never seen one who understands it better than him.”
While speaking recently on “The Bill Simmons Podcast,” former Cavs general manager David Griffin was describing James’s cerebral approach to the basketball. “We used to joke that he was a computer on learning mode,” Griffin said. “He’s such a savant, and he figures out the angles to such a huge degree that it’s not a surprise he’s figured out how to game the system a little bit.”
“There’s literally nothing you can show him that he can’t do. There’s no play you’ll run against him he can’t name, and then go out there and teach your players how to do it better than anyone else,” Griffin added.
To judge from Game 1, it would seem that James is going to have to be much better than anyone else on the court for his underwhelming team to have a chance to win. He was just that during the previous round, a sweep of the top-seeded Raptors in which the 15th-year veteran averaged 34.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 11.3 assists and 1.8 steals, but his quest to reach an eighth straight NBA Finals appears to be in jeopardy.
If things continue to go badly for Cleveland, we may see a return of the James who has occasionally looking disengaged in postseason setbacks. As those who know him have explained over the years, that can sometimes happen because he is actually taking sharp note of everything that is happening, including negative events that are hard to swallow.
“At times his memory can be a bad thing,” Spoelstra told Windhorst. “Because he remembers his failures, too.”
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