On Fourth Quarter Scoring, Clutch and Frustration

Depending on how long your memory is, and how much your opinions are shaped by recent events, this stat may surprise you:

LeBron James leads all active players with 6.7 career PPG in the fourth quarter.

If all you know of LeBron James is his failures in the 2011 NBA Finals, then you probably just do not believe that stat. But it's true. But it, like all stats, doesn't tell the whole story.

James's fourth quarter scoring average peaked in 2007-08, when he scored 8.6 points per fourth quarter for the Cavaliers. This was the year following Cleveland's Finals appearance, when the Cavs drastically re-shaped their roster in midseason, and they leaned heavily on James to pull out the 45 wins they did manage.

His fourth quarter scoring average dipped to 6.4 PPG the following season (impacted by a lot of short fourth quarters in Cleveland's 66-win 2008-09), and rebounded to 7.5 PPG in 2009-10. But last year, he averaged just 5.5 PPG in the fourth quarter, and this year, his 4.3 PPG average would be a career low. More tellingly, the Heat have actually been outscored in the fourth quarter when James is on the court (by a total of a single point in 57 minutes of action, but outscored is outscored).
Tuesday's overtime loss to the Warriors shined a spotlight on James's fourth-quarter struggles with the Heat, bringing the conversation back into the national spotlight. But it's not really fair to call them "struggles". That would apply if James was taking and missing a lot of shots, or turning the ball over constantly. Instead against Golden State, James reverted back to the form that led to questions on whether he was "shrinking" from the spotlight in the Finals.

Against Golden State, James's fourth quarter struggles actually had their roots in the third quarter. After a slow-starting first half, where he'd seemed generally indifferent to the outcome of the day, he was his usual dominant self coming out of halftime, helping Miami build a 17-point lead. Then in the final minute, he was 0-for-2 from the field (both on long 2s), with a turnover, plus another Miami turnover that came immediately following a James steal. In 60 seconds the Warriors cut the lead from 17 to 12, and frustration had set in for James.

During his career, James has responded to frustration in very different ways, depending on the situation around him. In the early stages of his career, he would get frustrated and go on the attack, sometimes trying to do to much, as if he had to carry his team single-handedly to make up for his mistakes (and, in a way, he did).

Towards the end of his Cavaliers career, frustration turned into a style of play that reached its pinnacle in the "Quitness" game: sloppy passes, long 2s and even longer 3s. To the casual observer, it would look like he was still trying to win, but he was doing it in a way that wasn't taking maximum advantage of his natural gifts. In 2009-10, 29% of James's fourth-quarter shots came from behind the arc, a five-point bump from his average in the first three quarters (obviously some of that is because of the need to shoot 3s in come-from-behind situations, but the 61-win Cavs weren't in a ton of those that season).

In Miami, a new "frustrated LeBron" has emerged, one who says, "here, you do it." James has always been a great passer in his career, and at times that's led him to be too willing to try and set up teammates rather than attack on his own. But, as observed at times in the Finals last season and in Tuesday's loss, when James gets into this mode, he goes beyond "trying to get his teammates involved" and into "keeping the ball out of his hands". He didn't attempt a single field goal in the fourth quarter against the Warriors, and most of his passes were around the perimeter, rather than to players moving toward the basket or open for a shot.

The reality is this is an entirely correctable problem. James is fully capable of conquering his moments of frustration and getting back into attack mode (and at least his frustration didn't result in an idiotic technical foul which cost the Heat a crucial point late in the fourth quarter like some people...). He's proven that time and time again, most recently in a game at New Jersey, when a couple fourth quarter turnovers and missed jumpers led to visible frustration, a definite change in body language, then an assist, and a pair of strong drives to the basket to put the game back out of reach. It's almost as if at the most inopportune times, James forgets that he's the best basketball player on the planet, and there's no one consistent thing to trigger a reminder of that.

(This is also the point where I should point out that we're not even having this conversation today -- or at least we're having a much more muted version of it -- if Udonis Haslem doesn't pick up that technical foul or miss a dunk, or if Dwyane Wade doesn't go 2-of-8 from the field in the fourth quarter or if either Dorell Wright or Nate Robinson play anything close to their normal selves.)

This isn't to say James should go back to trying to do everything like it was the 2007 playoffs, or even fall back on Hero Mode like he did against Chicago last spring. There's a happy (and, more importantly, "smart") medium between "doing everything" and "letting your teammates do everything" and when James finds that, he'll be fine. For all his failures in the fourth quarter, he's succeeded in that situation before, and he'll do it again. You don't become the league's leading fourth quarter scorer by never shooting.