During a recent segment on ESPN Radio’s The Russillo Show, host Ryen Russillo argued that LeBron James should have been given credit for half a ring for what he was able to do during the 2007 NBA Playoffs. Surrounded by a supporting cast that featured fairly forgettable names like Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson, and Donyell Marshall, LeBron was able to lead the Cavaliers—who finished as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference after going 50-32 in the regular season—all the way to the NBA Finals. Cleveland was eventually swept by the Spurs in the Finals, and LeBron didn’t play particularly well in that series. But as Russillo pointed out during his argument, the fact that the Cavaliers made the Finals in the first place was impressive in and of itself.
Back in 2007, LeBron, then just 22, had already solidified himself as one of the biggest and brightest young stars in the NBA. He had gone No. 1 overall to the Cavaliers during the 2003 NBA Draft, won the NBA Rookie of the Year award in 2004, and picked up a handful of individual accolades over his first few NBA seasons, including being named to NBA All-Star teams in 2005, 2006, and 2007, and being named to the All-NBA First Team in 2006. And during the 2005-06 regular season, he averaged 31.4 points per game, which is still a career-best for him, in addition to 7.0 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.6 steals, and 0.8 blocks. He had proven that he was a complete player with all the tools necessary to do a little bit of everything on the court for the Cavaliers.
But unfortunately, it hadn’t translated into much playoff success for the Cavaliers yet. During LeBron’s first season in Cleveland, LeBron and the Cavs finished 12 games below .500 and missed the postseason. During his second season, they improved dramatically to finish 42-40, but they still didn’t make it to the 2005 NBA Playoffs. And while they did finally get over the hump and earn the No. 4 seed in the playoffs in 2006 during LeBron’s third season after finishing 50-32, they lost a second-round matchup with the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Semifinals after defeating the Wizards in a first-round series.
In theory, the Cavaliers should have been thrilled just to be in the second round of the playoffs that season. They hadn’t made it past the first round of the playoffs since 1993, and prior to LeBron’s arrival, they had spent five straight seasons on the outside looking in at the end of the Eastern Conference playoff race. But the Cavaliers actually led their 2006 series with the Pistons 3-2 at one point and looked like they were in control of it with Game 6 scheduled to take place in Cleveland. But they lost that game and then put together a really bad performance in Game 7. They only trailed by two points at halftime but were held to just 23 points in the second half and lost 79-61. LeBron was frustrated when the game ended.
"They trapped me, they went under screens, they went over screens," said LeBron, who scored 27 points on 11-of-24 shooting. "I’ve seen almost every defense that I could possibly see for the rest of my career in this series."
The loss was deflating for some Cleveland fans and players, but it set the stage for what would be one of the defining moments of LeBron’s young career. The following season, the Cavaliers finished 50-32 for the second straight year, and although LeBron’s individual stats dipped slightly—he finished with 27.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.6 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game during the regular season—the Cavaliers finished with the second seed in the playoffs. And after cruising past the Wizards again in the first round and knocking off the Nets in the second round, they earned a rematch with the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The 2007 series between the Cavaliers and Pistons started out the same way their 2006 matchup did. The Pistons beat the Cavaliers in Games 1 and 2 to take a 2-0 lead at home. Then, the Cavaliers rebounded in Cleveland to win Games 3 and 4 to tie the series 2-2. LeBron played particularly well in Game 4 when he scored 25 points, including 13 points in the fourth quarter. He later revealed that he told his teammates that he was ready to shake off the fourth quarter struggles he endured earlier in the series to lead them to a win.
"I told my teammates, 'Get me to the fourth and if it’s close, and I’ll try my best to win,'" he said.
It was a sign of things to come. With what happened the previous season still fresh on their minds, the sense was that the Cavaliers were going to have to win Game 5 on the road to avoid setting themselves up for another Game 7 in Detroit. That meant that LeBron would have to will his team to a win regardless of whatever defensive tactics the Pistons threw at him this time around.
After the Pistons jumped out to a six-point lead after one quarter during Game 5—which took place exactly ten years ago today—the Cavaliers pulled to within just one at halftime. Then, they outscored the Pistons by a point in the third quarter to head into the fourth all tied up. And in the fourth, it was clear the Cavaliers would need another Herculean effort from LeBron to get a win.
He provided it for them. LeBron finished the game, which eventually went to double overtime, with a career playoff-high 48 points. But it was how he managed to score that was even more impressive than his total point output.
LeBron scored 25 straight points for the Cavaliers at one point at the end of the game, and he finished with 29 of the Cavaliers’ last 30 points. He was the only Cavaliers player to score a field goal in the final 18 minutes of the game and the only Cavaliers player to score period in the final 13 minutes. He finished 18-of-33 from the field with a pair of three-pointers, went 10-for-14 from the free-throw line, and scored the game-winning layup with two seconds left on the clock in double OT. And maybe most importantly, he forced the Pistons to exert a lot of energy using every single defensive formation they could think of to try and stop him.
But LeBron just could not be stopped. He single-handedly led the Cavaliers to a 109-107 win and did so in epic fashion:
"We threw everything we had at him," Chauncey Billups said after the game. "We just couldn’t stop him."
Billups later added: "It’s frustrating. He put on an unbelievable display out there. It’s probably the best I have ever seen against us ever in the playoffs."
The Cavs went on to win Game 6 back in Cleveland to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in LeBron’s career. And while they were thoroughly outmatched by the Spurs in the Finals, it gave LeBron his first real taste of postseason success. It also served as his coming of age moment and showed everyone that, even with a roster filled with a hodgepodge of players, he was more than capable of picking up the slack and doing just about everything imaginable on the court if he had to.
Since 2007, LeBron has put together dozens of other memorable playoff performances. His 45-point performance during Game 6 against the Celtics in 2012, his 41-point performance during Game 5 against the Warriors in 2016, and his 32-point performance during Game 6 against the Spurs in 2013 all come to mind. And LeBron himself doesn't necessarily consider his 2007 effort to be his best ever. "I haven't ranked games yet because I'm still going, I'm still playing," he said this past March.
But it will be hard, if not impossible, for LeBron to ever top what he did against the Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. And although the idea of giving LeBron half a ring for it as Russillo suggested might sound silly, there’s no denying that what he was able to do during that Cavaliers’ run will go down in NBA playoff history.