LeBron James and the Psychology of a Killer Instinct

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Jun 10, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) talks during the fourth quarter in game four of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Jun 10, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) talks during the fourth quarter in game four of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James has become something even more in this year’s NBA Finals.

When the Cleveland Cavaliers take the court in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals versus the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James will be playing in a third straight elimination game. And for the third straight game, James will have to perform at his peak best from start to finish.

For the past two games, we’ve seen James at his most otherworldly with performances in Game 5 and 6 that are some of the best of all time. Just when the Cavs were counted out after going down 3-1 against the history-seeking Warriors, James put on his Superman cape and came up with off-the-charts numbers:

  • 41 points, 16 rebounds, 8 assists, 3, steals and 3 blocks for Game 5
  • 41 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists, 3 steals, and 4 blocks for Game 6
Stephen Curry (30) during the fourth quarter in game six of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Doubting the King

As great as he’s been these last two games, some still question why it took this long for LeBron to bring out his best. If he had just one of these games in game 1, 2, or 4, the Cavs didn’t have to mount such a huge comeback to tie the series at 3-3.

Many have their doubts on James’ ability to take over games when they matter most, chief among them is ESPN’s Skip Bayless. “He doesn’t seem to have the guts to take over a ball game and win it during clutch situations as often as Michael Jordan does,” goes the argument.

Jordan is by far the ultimate standard of many when it comes to closing out a series and taking (and making) the game-winning shot.

Apr 4, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; NBA former player Michael Jordan and NCAA president Mark Emmert during halftime of the game between the Villanova Wildcats and the North Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game of the 2016 NCAA Men

Inasmuch as it’s a fallacy that LeBron doesn’t perform well in clutch situations despite statistical evidence, there appears to be something lacking in the Cavs’ ring leader, something that Jordan has and James is still trying to figure out. It’s called a killer instinct.

Let me just say that despite some evidences pointing to the contrary (the 2011 NBA Finals, for example), James does exhibit a killer instinct, one that is different from but just as effective as Jordan’s regardless of what we perceive. I know that may seem blasphemous to Jordan fans, to which I also belong, but hear me out.

Different kinds of killer instincts

they both [Jordan and LeBron] have killer instincts except one is triggered by something that is not immediately existent in the other.

I’m a keen observer of behaviors, seeing patterns in people’s tendencies, thus allowing me to understand people’s best and worst situations. Without meaning to, I naturally do the same when watching NBA games. I recognize patterns of behavior in the players especially those I watch often. In this particular example, it’s Jordan and James, His Airness and the King.

What I discovered is that they both have killer instincts except one is triggered by something that is not immediately existent in the other.

With Jordan, the motivation to strike at the heart of the enemy is apparent in every game that he plays, whether it’s in practice or in a Game 7. His killer instinct is such that he practically takes over ball games and makes game-winning shots with astounding regularity. Jordan doesn’t have a perfect playoff record as he, too, has lost many games in the postseason.

However, foremost in our minds is the perfect 6-0 Finals record that he amassed over the course of his championship runs with the Chicago Bulls. And even then, we overlook the fact that he and his Bulls teams also struggled against Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks, Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers, and at times, Karl Malone and John Stockton’s Utah Jazz.

Universally regarded as the greatest player ever, Jordan is the standard by which killer instincts are defined. It is that standard we use when we seek to define a player’s ability to close out a game or a series.

And while it is a very high standard and one that seems logical enough to most people, including NBA analysts and experts, let me play the devil’s advocate here and say that it is an unfair standard. It’s a standard that should be used judiciously, specifically only to players who have a same set of behavioral patterns as Jordan such as Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant.

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