How LeBron James became the best playoff closer of his generation.

LeBron James celebrates a seize-the-moment anniversary Tuesday. Actually, there are two to savor.

It was May 22, 2009, when the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player rose above Orlando’s Hedo Turkoglu to deliver a high-arcing 3-point shot for his first career playoff buzzer-beater. Four years later on the same date, James beat Paul George and the horn to stun the Pacers.

Advice to the Celtics regarding Monday’s pivotal Game 4 against the Cavaliers: Don’t let the contest drift past midnight with the outcome riding on a last-second shot from No. 23. Especially not in this postseason when he’s had a standing reservation at Quicken Loans Arena for a courtside table for one.

No matter how these playoffs conclude, James has shattered any lingering, misguided perception of him not wanting to take final shots when the games matter most. He’s become the first player in the past 15 years, according to ESPN Stats & Info Group, to hit multiple buzzer-beaters in the same postseason. He did it against the Pacers in Game 5 of the opening-round series and followed it up with a running off-balance, off-the-glass winner in Game 3 of the Cavaliers’ sweep over the Raptors.

He punctuated both game-winning shots with his own version of the Lambeau Leap, hopping on top of the Q’s scorer’s table to bathe in the applause of the jubilant crowd. Recently, he was asked about the view.

“It’s just another vantage point,” James said laughing. “Like I’ve said, our fans get pretty riled up during the postseason. It was just another opportunity for myself and our team to show our appreciation to their support.”

His place among NBA legends is indisputable. The same can said about his basketball acumen and ability to make the correct “basketball play” in tight moments.

But has James always been at ease taking pressure-packed shots, or has the process evolved over time?

The Athletic posed the question to him and other basketball observers. Responses varied. Most answers were nuanced and included variables such as roster composition and James’ confidence in certain shots like free throws and jumpers.

The superstar cannot point to a specific attempt or time in his illustrious 15-year career when he became comfortable in hoisting game-ending shots. It’s worth noting his first playoff game-winner came in his first postseason series in 2006 against the Wizards as he hit a driving layup with 0.9 seconds remaining in OT of Game 5.

“I guess I’ve been around coaches and teammates that have given me the confidence like, ‘OK we want you to take this shot,’ ” James told The Athletic last week. “But I’ve missed a lot, too. It’s not like I’ve always been successful at making them. It’s just I haven’t been nervous or shy about making or missing them.

“You just trust your judgment, trust your craft and you rely on that. I’ve been fortunate enough to make some, but I’ve missed a lot as well. I think that’s what has helped me at the end of the day. I’ve missed some as well and I’ve learned from it.”

Although some chided him early in his career for lacking the killer instinct of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, he’s emerged as this generation’s ultimate closer.

James is 9-for-22 (.409) on potential tying or go-ahead shots in the last 10 seconds of a fourth quarter or overtime, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. It represents the best field-goal percentage of any active player who’s attempted at least five such shots. The two players tied for second at .400 are Mike Conley and Derrick Rose, who are each 2-of-5.

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“Jordan and (Larry) Bird always had it in the clutch, and when I think LeBron’s history is written, he will be placed in the same category,” said NBA analyst and longtime coach Mike Fratello. “He’s a guy who wants the ball at the end of the game and isn’t afraid to take that shot.”

‘Make the right play’

There’s nothing in American team sports rivaling a last-second basketball shot.

Game-winning touchdown drives are an accumulation of snaps requiring many players to block, pass, run and catch.

Walk-off homers and successful saves in playoff baseball come without the constriction of time. A hitter can step out of the box, catch his breath and adjust his batting gloves without a buzzer sounding to end the game.

Hockey is so free flowing it’s hard to predict who will take the final shot in a tie or one-goal Stanley Cup game.

But in basketball, as the seconds tick down and players emerge from a timeout huddle, everyone in the arena knows which one or two players will have the ball in their hands if the play unfurls properly.

“A lot of guys, really good players, don’t want it for fear of failure,” Fratello said. “People don’t want to fail. They don’t want to look bad. They don’t want everyone saying, ‘He lost the game for us.’

“Now, that fear is greater than ever in the age of social media. A guy can feel terrible for making a mistake at the end of a game, but it doesn’t stop people on social media from criticizing and ridiculing him for it. It certainly comes with the territory and the pay scale, but it still hurts. For some, it’s just too much pressure.”

James grew up in the spotlight, a Sports Illustrated cover boy during his junior season at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. He played nationally televised prep games, drew bigger crowds at the Q than the bottom-feeding Cavaliers in 2003 and had sneaker executives almost handing his family blank checks for their endorsement.

The “Chosen One’ is the rare athlete who’s exceeded the hype surrounding him. It hasn’t stopped detractors, however, for trying to poke holes in his legacy. The decision to chase rings in 2010 with the Heat was heavily criticized. James, of course, got the last laugh not only winning a pair of titles with the Heat, but also returning to Cleveland and leading the Cavaliers to the city’s first sports championship since 1964.

Along the way, one of the critiques of his splendid all-around game has been a perceived reluctance to take final shots. It first flared up professionally in 2007 during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons. James drove the lane with a chance to tie it before electing to pass the ball to Donyell Marshall for a wide-open 3-point attempt. Marshall missed the shot and the Cavaliers lost.

“LeBron James, who has been and probably always will be one of the best basketball minds, will always make the correct basketball play,” Hall of Famer Reggie Miller said. “It’s just at times, the media — and I’m included in that — we want to make him out to be Kobe or Michael Jordan. … Always take the last shot. You are the best player, you have to do it as opposed to making the correct basketball play, which he’s always done.

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“Earlier in his career, he always made the right basketball play and he probably could have taken some of those shots. But when you broke down the film, some of the passes when he was double-teamed were the right plays. Guys just didn’t make the shots.”

The narrative reached absurd heights during the 2012 NBA All-Star Game when James’ errant last-second pass resulted in a turnover. The decision not to shoot even drew some on-court ribbing from Bryant, who was on the other team.

James spoke candidly last week about a perception he’s put to rest in recent seasons.

“I think it bothered me because as a basketball player, I’ve always been taught the right way to play the game,” he said. “If you drive and there’s a second defender coming at you, you have an open guy. Make the right play, no matter what happens. I always believed and knew that my Little League coaches and high school coaches and middle school coaches that I had (were) teaching me the right way because we always had success. So I never shied away from that.

“And then you get to the NBA where you feel like it’s the best league in the world and you’re getting criticized for making the right plays, that shit kind of bothered me. You know? Because you feel like this is the smartest league and you feel like everyone knows what they’re talking about. Then when you realize they really don’t, that’s when you stop caring.”

‘I scratched it’

Former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin watched James convert his latest buzzer-beater May 5, the outrageous length-of-the court runner that he kissed off the backboard to bury the Raptors.

Griffin can’t count how many times he saw James attempt that same shot at the team’s practice facility after the forward returned to Cleveland in 2014.

“Frankly, he’s so much more comfortable in his shooting,” Griffin said. “He might have always had that clutch gene in wanting to take it, but now he very much believes he’s making any shot from almost any angle. What I have seen is his skill set has grown to the point where his confidence level is at an all-time high.”

James is 7-of-15 (47 percent) in the final five seconds of postseason fourth quarters and overtimes, according to the ESPN Stats & Info Group. Jordan was 5-of-11 (45 percent) in that same category.

Griffin likens James to another serial winner.

“Manu Ginobili played his best in the biggest moments,” Griffin said of the four-time NBA champion. “LeBron has that. He senses the stage better than anybody and he’s gifted enough to take advantage of that. It’s the perfect storm. The right person with the right gifts on the right stage.”

Four of James’ five career playoff buzzer-beaters have occurred since 2013. Several respected NBA observers have offered opinions as to why the iconic shots are falling with more frequency.

James, at times, lacked confidence in his free throws. It might explain why he occasionally passed the ball on drives to the basket. He didn’t want to run the risk of being fouled with his team needing points to tie a game or take the lead.

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There’s also the matter of becoming a better perimeter shooter.

“It’s not that I’ve never not had confidence in my jump shot, I just always reverted back to things I was really good at,” James said. “That’s just smart. People always say, ‘He’s not good at this, he’s not confident at that.’ For me, do what you’re very, very good at until other facets of your game become good, too.

“Why let so many teams off the hook when I can just drive? Especially when I’m young. I’m 21, 22, 23. I can jump and land and do things I want to do and I don’t even have to ice (my knees) after the game. So let me just do that. But as you get older, you start figuring out ways you can continue to improve your game but also have longevity in this sport as well. So you add to your game. That’s just me being a complete basketball player.”

Although James struggles to identify particular moments when he developed a gunslinger’s mentality, one date stands out — May 10, 2015.

With the Cavaliers trailing a conference semifinal series against the Bulls 2-1, he overruled coach David Blatt on a last-second play designed for him to in-bound the ball.

“I told Coach there was no way I’m taking the ball out unless I could shoot it over the backboard and go in,” James said that night at United Center. “So I told him, ‘Have somebody else take the ball out.’ The play that was drawn up, I scratched it. I just told Coach, ‘Just give me the ball. We’re either going to go into overtime or I’m going to win it for us.’ ”

Playing on a sprained ankle, James won the game with a fadeaway jumper from the left corner.

“Part of him exploring his greatness early on was, ‘I’m going to make the best pass anyone has ever seen,’ ” Griffin said. “And I think he recognizes now the best in the world have to make the best play.

“He was penalized for making the right play previously, no doubt. And maybe to a fault in recognizing, ‘You are the right play, Bron. You putting up this shot is the best shot.’ Now that he does have more confidence as a shooter, he knows that.”

This year’s playoff run marks James’ most challenging since 2007 because of his supporting cast. There’s no Ray Allen or Dwyane Wade. No Kyrie Irving.

The Cavaliers barely survived a seven-game, opening-round test against the Pacers. They trail the Celtics 2-1 heading into Monday night’s game.

And yet at age 33, James continues to defy skeptics and time — especially in the dying seconds. He’s averaging 32.9 points, 9.4 assists and 8.9 rebounds. He has a playoff-best 37.6 efficiency rating.

“The older he’s gotten, and, understanding the team dynamic, there’s a time to be a little selfish,” Miller said. “I think this year in particular because he played all 82 (regular-season) games and all 82 games were needed for him to be selfish. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Once they made the trades to get younger … he needed to be more selfish to show these guys how we do things.”


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