As LeBron James closes in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and is about to become the NBA’s career scoring leader, the journey has included several memorable moments. And there have been many. Many. Through 20 seasons and four NBA championships, the list of James’ unforgettable nights is immeasurably long. But here are five that stand out.
The highest-scoring game of his career came on March 3, 2014, when James — playing with a mask to protect a facial fracture — toyed with the Charlotte Bobcats, scoring 61 points to set a Miami Heat record that still stands. He made 22 of 33 shots in a 124-107 win by the Heat. He made his first eight 3-pointers, the last of them officially listed as being from 29 feet but seemed to be deeper. Even the Bobcats were awed. “You take away his 61 points,” Charlotte’s Al Jefferson said, “and we still had a fighting chance there at the end.”
Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals did not start with Miami in great shape. The Heat were in Boston, trailing the series 3-2, one loss away from elimination and — after losing in the NBA Finals the year before, the first season of James’ tenure in Miami — quite probably needing to win to keep Miami from overhauling the roster. James missed his first shot. He made his next 12 shots. He finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds, five assists — and an intense look cameras caught him making during the game is still a meme today. Miami won 98-79, came home to beat the Celtics in Game 7 and went on to beat Oklahoma City for James’ first NBA title. “He was absolutely fearless tonight, and it was contagious,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
On May 31, 2007, James and the Cavaliers went to Detroit for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, series tied 2-2 entering what would become a double-overtime thriller. Drew Gooden made a free throw with 2:49 left in regulation to draw Cleveland within 88-84. And that was the last point he, or any Cavs player not wearing No. 23, would score that night. James scored Cleveland’s final 25 points — and 29 of the Cavs’ last 30 — to lift his team to a 109-107 win and a 3-2 series lead. He even had the game-winner, a layup with 2.2 seconds remaining. He finished with 48 points; Cleveland closed out the series with a Game 6 win and sent James to the NBA Finals for the first time. “We threw everything we had at him,” said Detroit guard Chauncey Billups, now the Portland Trail Blazers coach. “We just couldn’t stop him.”
James had promised Cleveland a championship. And then he left in 2010 for Miami, a move that left Cavs fans jilted for years — especially when he won two titles there. But when he returned in 2014, all was forgiven. Two years later — June 19, 2016 — he finally delivered what Cleveland had waited generations for. He had 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, plus a chase-down block of Golden State’s Andre Iguodala to keep the game tied with just under 2 minutes to go. The Cavs went on the Warriors’ floor and dethroned the champions, winning 93-89 and capping a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit. It was the first major championship for the city of Cleveland since the Browns in 1964.
James’ fourth title came with almost no fans there. A handful of team employees and a very select group of invitees were the only ones inside the bubble at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida when the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat in the 2020 NBA Finals. It capped a season delayed by the pandemic and one where the Lakers had to grieve the death of Kobe Bryant earlier that year. James once again had a triple-double in the title-clincher, this time 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists. The Lakers won 106-93, taking the series 4-2. “Our organization wants their respect. Laker Nation wants their respect,” James said that night. “And I want my damn respect, too.”