I always thought the question seemed kind of strange. First of all, I thought, LeBron has only had five 50+ point games in his career, and his career high is 56, which he dropped on the Raptors in 2005. So to try to top 61 points seemed far fetched. Besides, that’s not LeBron’s game, I told myself.
Heck, LeBron himself said he wasn’t going to try to top Kobe’s brilliant performance. After the Raptors game Tuesday, LeBron said,
“I just go out and play my game,” James said. “I’m not a video game where you can just expect me to go out there and score 60 or 70. I play the game to win the game. I’m not into individual accolades. Kobe Bryant’s performance was unbelievable. I watched every second of it. It’s not about individuals in this league.”
So no, I did not think LeBron would be able to top Kobe’s 61 point onslaught.
Only, the thing is…..I was wrong. LeBron topped it not in points scored, but in significance of accomplishment.
On Wednesday night against the New York Knicks inside Madison Square Garden, LeBron had an historic triple double, going for 52 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists in leading the Cavaliers to a 107-102 victory.
This astounding stat line is historic on multiple levels. On the point total side alone, LeBron’s 52 is the 3rd highest point total in MSG history behind only Kobe’s 61 and Michael Jordan’s 55. LeBron joins MJ as the only player to have multiple 50+ point games in the Garden (LeBron scored 50 points there last year as well). LeBron’s 50 point triple-double is the first of its kind since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1975. This was LeBron’s 3rd career 40+ point triple-double. Going back to the 1986-87 season, the only other players to have a 40+ point triple-double were Michael Jordan (3 times), Larry Bird (twice), Michael Adams, Chris Webber, Tracy McGrady, and Vince Carter. The player to come closest to joining LeBron in this feat was Larry Bird, who had 49 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists against the Blazers in 1992.
In what has already been a remarkable career on a perhaps unprecedented path, LeBron’s 52 point triple-double joins a list of unforgettable performances. In fact, as far as individual performances go, the only LeBron James game that can beat this one is the 48 special he dropped on the Pistons in the 2007 playoffs. It tops the 32-11-11 triple double in his first ever playoff game. It tops the 45 point performance in the Game 5 duel with Gilbert Arenas in the 2006 playoffs.
LeBron has been close to being here before. Last year he had 51-8-9 against the Grizzlies and 50-8-10 against the Knicks. He had 47-12-9 in a memorable 2006 showdown with Dwyane Wade and the Heat. But none of those can match the glamour of the 52-10-11 stat line. 52, 10, and 11 are numbers that will be burned in the memories of Cavalier fans minds forever.
So how did LeBron get to those numbers? We can break it down by quarter:
- 20 points, 5 rebounds 2 assists
- 8 points, 0 rebounds, 3 assists
- 11 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists
- 13 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists
It’s interesting to note some of the intricacies of this box score. LeBron came out on fire, hitting 6 of 9 from the field in the 1st quarter and 4 of 6 in the 2nd quarter. In the 2nd half, however, his outside shot stopped falling, and LeBron found himself having to go to the hoop again. This allowed him to rack up some points at the free throw line, as he finished the game 16-19 at the line.
The most bizarre stats, though, are the rebounding numbers. After grabbing 5 rebounds in the 1st quarter, his numbers read: 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists. That’s right, LeBron James was on pace for 80 points, 20 rebounds, and 8 assists. That was the moment it first became clear this had potential to be a special evening.
After just an 8-0-3 2nd quarter, however, LeBron’s pace had “dropped” to 56-10-10, which was very close to where he ended up at. But the rebounds were about to become an issue. After grabbing a trio of boards in the 3rd, LeBron went the first 11+ minutes in the 4th quarter without grabbing a single rebound. After crashing the boards with a purpose in the 1st quarter, LeBron had only snagged 3 rebounds in the next 35 minutes of play.
Stuck on 8 total rebounds, LeBron’s dazzling performance was facing a dime-a-dozen legacy, forever doomed to be lumped in together with those previously mentioned games against the Knicks, Grizzlies, and Heat. So it was with this uncertainty hanging in the air….would this game be a legendary performance, or just another great game by a great player…that the electricity in the arena became palpable, even when watching on TV. There was this weird sort of duality between the manner in which the Knicks fans were balancing the fact that this was a close, winnable game for the Knicks with the realization of the potential for grandeur they had a chance to witness. It was a swirl of conflict and struggle that was hanging in the balance.
Finally, with 39 seconds left in the game, Ben Wallace looked to come down with a rebound, but bobbled the ball a bit and it went into LeBron’s hands, and he was credited with his 9th rebound of the game. That setup the final sequence of the game.
With 9 seconds left in the game, Zydrunas Ilgasukas hit a free throw to make it 107-102 Cavs. The Knicks called a time out and were inbounding the ball at mid court. It all came down to this sequence. One shot. One rebound. That’s all that stood between a game for the ages and another run of the mill great game for LeBron.
During that time out it was easy to begin to reflect on the significance of what was about to happen. When you isolate it to the basic core, one simple rebound seems hardly significant enough to alter forever the way a performance is perceived. Is a 10 rebound game really that much better than a 9 rebound game? Wasn’t this really all about the convenient and lazy confines of a grouping mechanism, called triple doubles, created by the NBA society to make it easier on us to quantify what makes a performance truly great? Would jumping in the air and coming down with the basketball off a missed basket really mean anything at all?
The answer, of course, is absolutely. That one rebound represented 34 years. It has been 34 years since anyone had managed to collect a triple-double with 50 or more points. The triple-double mark may be a contrived device for the accessibility of those who follow the game, but it also gives us a barometer with which to measure the mark of incomparable greatness.
This was all on the line with 9 seconds left in the game, and LeBron James having just 9 rebounds for the game. Upon inbounding the ball, Chris Duhon took a 3point shot with about 3 seconds left. The ball was off the mark, and LeBron vaulted himself toward the backboard and came down with the ball in his hands with time expiring, for his 10th rebound of the game.
A look of exuberance crossed his face, and New York crowd, originally pulling so hard for a Knick win, was now buzzing with excitement over the realization of what had just happened. 52 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists. An isolated moment of pure athletic excellence not seen in three decades.
I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will insist Kobe’s 61 point performance was the better game. I suppose I can understand that to some small extent. 61 is an unreal number. It’s the most in MSG history. It’s the kind of scoring output we often think impossible in today’s game. Especially coming from a SG who has to rely on an outside shot. It was a truly great game. But Kobe had 0 rebounds and only 3 assists in his game. Kobe’s game was great, LeBron’s game was epic.
It’s hard to fully understand right now just what LeBron’s 52 point triple-double means in the grand scheme of things. Who knows how this game will be remembered 20 years from now when LeBron has since retired. With LeBron, you never know what he’s all capable of doing in the future to render this game meaningless. But for this moment in time, in the history of the game as we currently know it to be, LeBron gave all basketball fans a special gift on this evening, and something we can cherish for a very long time…..or at least until LeBron somehow tops it.