LeBron James has entered unchartered waters.
He has been to the NBA playoffs in 15 of his 18 NBA seasons, and has never missed the second round — a streak that is now very much in doubt. James and the Los Angeles Lakers trail their first-round series against Phoenix 3-2, with Game 6 in Los Angeles on Friday.
Game 7, if necessary, is back in Phoenix on Sunday.
James’ 14-0 record in first-round series — counting his times in Cleveland, his four-year run in Miami and now his Lakers’ stint — is almost beyond compare in NBA history. Robert Horry and Derek Fisher both played in the first round 16 times; their teams went 16-0 in those series. They are the only players who have enjoyed more first-round success than James.
Now, he’s on the brink of something he’s never experienced. The approach, from here, is simple.
“You shoot all the bullets you’ve got and throw the gun too,” James said. “I look forward to the environment. Obviously, our Laker faithful are going to give us a lot of energy. I look forward to the moment. I look forward to the challenge and see if it brings out the best in me and my teammates.”
This marks the first time that James has been on a team that is trailing after five games of a first-round series. He has played one elimination game in a first round, that being three years ago when Indiana took Cleveland to a Game 7.
Yet there are numbers, particularly in Phoenix’s Game 5 romp, the likes of which that James has never previously had to deal with.
His Lakers lost the second quarter of Game 5 by 22 points, the most lopsided quarter James has been on the wrong end of during a playoff game. They were down by 30 at halftime, another first in his career.
A look, by the numbers, at this unprecedented moment in James’ career:
0 — The number of times, before this series, that a team with James lost consecutive first-round games. Entering these playoffs, a team with James had been 11-0 in first-round games immediately following losses. The Lakers are 1-2 after losses in this series.
1 — James has faced an elimination game in the first round of the playoffs only one other time, that being Game 7 of the 2018 opening round between Cleveland and Indiana. James scored 45 points and the Cavaliers won 105-101.
2 — The number of players with a better series record in first-round matchups than James. Robert Horry and Derek Fisher were both 16-0 in opening rounds. For comparison’s sake, Karl Malone and John Stockton were both 10-9, Michael Jordan was 10-3 and Kobe Bryant was 13-2.
14-10 — James’ record in elimination games. His Cleveland teams were 9-8 when facing elimination, his Miami teams were 5-2 and this is the first time he’s faced elimination as a member of the Lakers.
21 — James’ teams once won 21 consecutive first-round games, a stint spanning 2012 through the start of the 2018 playoffs with Miami and Cleveland.
22.2 — James’ scoring average in this series against Phoenix so far. That is his lowest average in 15 career first-round matchups. He’s had a lower average in only two of his 49 previous playoff series; he averaged 22.0 points in Cleveland’s 2007 NBA Finals loss to San Antonio and 17.8 points in Miami’s 2011 NBA Finals loss to Dallas.
128 — The number of players who, in the NBA’s 16-team playoff format since 1984, have appeared in at least 44 first-round games. (The number becomes 129 when Jae Crowder plays for Phoenix in Game 6.) None of them have a better record in those games than James does; his teams have gone 58-14, a winning percentage of .806. Jordan’s first-round winning percentage was .674 (with a 1-9 start), Bryant’s was .676, Fisher’s was .740 and Horry’s was .750. Malone (44-42) was barely over .500 in first-round games and Stockton (43-43) was exactly .500.