Heading into the 2007 NBA Playoffs, LeBron James was not yet seen as a true, no doubt about it superstar. He was close, sure, but there were questions stemming from his struggles at the start of the 2006-2007 season and brief postseason career. He'd been good - great, even - but it still felt like LeBron had yet to truly arrive as a star.
This all changed in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons, when LeBron scored 29 of the Cavs' last 30 points in a double-overtime win. On the night, LeBron finished with a then playoff career high 48 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists and won the game with a layup with just 2.2 seconds left in the second overtime.
"I was able to will my team to victory," James said after the game according to the Associated Press' recap. "This is definitely a big win, one of the biggest wins in Cavaliers' franchise history. For me and my teammates, it's definitely the biggest win."
LeBron was right when he said that was the team's biggest win. It's arguable that it's the biggest win Cavs franchise history; it's unquestionably the biggest single game of LeBron's career, as it validated everything LeBron had teased in his previous three seasons while also foreshadowing everything that was still to come for the best player of his generation.
Before Game 5, LeBron hadn't had a series that lived up to his high, high standards. In a rematch of the 2006 Eastern Conference Semifinals - a series the Pistons won in seven games - LeBron started off the series by scoring just 10 points in a Game 1 loss and the Cavs lost the first two games on the road. Behind LeBron, the Cavs were able to tie the series 2-2 to set the stage for Game 5 at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
"We threw everything we had at him," Billups would say after Game 5. "We just couldn't stop him."
The Pistons really did throw everything they had at LeBron, but it didn't matter. For most of the game - and especially after he started to truly takeover - LeBron dictated every play he was involved in. When he had the ball, the entire Pistons defense turned to look at him in an attempt to slow him down. When he didn't the defense was still leaning towards him in anticipation of the ball ending up back in his hands. For instance, here's LeBron in the middle of his scoring streak right on the 3-point line as he's about to shoot what is typically a bad shot even for him:
Just look at the Pistons defensive set-up here. Prince was dealing with foul trouble, so he's not defending LeBron and he's still not even looking at his man. Same goes for Rip Hamilton, who just is just ignoring the fact that Sasha Pavlovic exists. Jason Maxiell, one of players the Pistons tried to replace Wallace with, isn't even marking Anderson Varejao as he enters the lane. Billups, who was tasked with defending LeBron, is right up in his grill and Rasheed Wallace has almost fully left Donyell Marshall open in the corner. LeBron made this shot. He was 18 of 33 for the game. Only two other Cavs - Ilgauskas and Daniel 'Boobie' Gibson - scored in double figures; this one was all LeBron.
LeBron's scoring run was a cocktail of everything that made him dangerous. There were explosive drives to the basket, quick cuts off the ball and jumpers that had no business in going in.
And no matter what Detroit threw at him, it didn't work - this was LeBron scoring in any way he wanted. Prince, Wallace, Billups and Hamilton all took turns defending LeBron and not one Piston had any success. Prince gave James the most problems, was overwhelmed in every facet and got into foul trouble. Wallace was too slow, Billups too small and Hamilton too small and too slow. When a single defender couldn't stop LeBron, the Pistons turned to physical team defense and sent LeBron to the line 14 times. LeBron made 10 of his 14 free throws and only took three three-point attempts, making two of them. This LeBron didn't settle for threes after pounding away the shot clock - he instead drove inside and either rose above the rim or got fouled. Or both.
In the end, LeBron won the game by scoring his last two points with 2.2 seconds left on the clock. Before the broadcast ended, then ABC-announcer Steve Kerr called LeBron's performance 'Jordan-esque' and Marv Albert would called LeBron's performance 'one of the greatest moments in postseason history'. After the win, Cleveland took a 3-2 series lead and two night later, the Cavs won Game 6 at home and advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
In a sense, Billups understated how dominant LeBron was that night in Auburn Hills.
The Pistons team LeBron singularly dismantled was no joke either. Although Ben Wallace had left as a free agent the previous summer, the 2006-07 Pistons were the No. 1 seed in the East, won 53 games and became the first team since the 1992-93 Chicago Bulls to make the Eastern Conference Finals five years in a row. Detroit was also just three years removed from winning the title over the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal-led Los Angeles Lakers and the likes of Prince, Billups and Hamilton were near, or in, their respective primes.
LeBron's supporting cast wasn't exactly great, or even good. Larry Hughes, in the second year of the massive deal he signed with the Cavs, started at point guard and Sasha Pavlovic started at shooting guard. LeBron, course, started at small forward and Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas rounded out the front court. The key bench players were Gibson, Varejao, Marshall, Damon Jones and Eric Snow. For the year, the Cavs were stout defensively under Mike Brown - Cleveland had the fourth best defensive rating in the league that year per basketball-reference - while sporting a below-average offensive rating. Without LeBron, this Cavs team would have been a lottery team.
22-year-old LeBron wasn't even close to peak LeBron - LeBron's last years in Cleveland or his three years in Miami where he posted a TS% above 60 percent three years in a row, and four if you count his last year in Cleveland - will probably go down as the best years of his career when he retires.
But this was a glimpse at what was to come. This was the first time we saw LeBron hell-bent on willing his team to victory and the first time LeBron put the outcome of a game squarely in his hands. This was his version of Jordan beating the Pistons in 1991.
This was also a version of LeBron that we only see in brief spurts now. While we did see the frequent isolation calls and high pick and rolls that LeBron loves so much now vs. the Pistons, 22-year-old LeBron was more aggressive than 30-year-old LeBron. He pounded the ball away at the top of the key, sure, but he then effortlessly drove by his defenders and dunked or got fouled. At 22, LeBron was building the whole house from the ground up, whereas now he's mostly just designing it.
But it was a foreshadow nonetheless. When LeBron went off and scored 29 out of the Cavs' last 30 points - including the last 25 - he showed how good he already was and indicated that he would get ever better. What came in the seasons to come - the multiple MVPs, the scoring title, his solo effort in June's Finals, etc.- is partly a result of his performance in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals.