As LeBron James embarks on his ninth Eastern Conference Finals since 2007, we look back at a pair of his most legendary road contests. This, the first of a two-part series, travels back to Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, when James’ Cavaliers squared off against the top-seeded Detroit Pistons. LeBron recently revealed his affinity for playing road playoff games: Adversity is his basketball aphrodisiac.
All great NBA players — all great athletes, really — experience The Moment. “That little moment when it clicks,” says Chauncey Billups, 2004 NBA Finals MVP. “And it’s like, ‘I’m here.’ ”
There are moments that define a career. For Kevin Garnett, it’s hard to pick a better one than when he yelled, “Anything’s possible!” at center court after Game 6 of the 2008 Finals. Serena Williams’ 2015 return to Indian Wells ranks as one of her “proudest moments.” But a moment that says, I’m here — that’s different. Usain Bolt’s moment arrived when he was 15. With his victory in the 200 meters, Bolt became the youngest gold medalist ever at the 2002 World Junior Championships in Jamaica. This was six years before he truly sprinted into history at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.
Denver-born Chauncey Billups personally experienced The Moment in the opening round of the 2003 postseason when his Detroit Pistons rallied from 3-1 down to defeat Tracy McGrady’s Orlando Magic. The first-round pick from the University of Colorado played for four NBA teams in his first five seasons before settling in Detroit. And for the first four games, Billups struggled to find an answer for Magic point guard Darrell Armstrong. Billups’ shot wasn’t falling. And Detroit, the East’s top seed, was on the brink of elimination — and embarrassment.
But then something clicked for Billups. A hunter’s mentality. Billups could be a shark or a guppy. The predator or the prey. Shots drawing iron earlier in the series found water. His confidence swelled. Billups scored 40 points in Game 6 and officially lowered Orlando’s casket in Game 7 with 37. “That,” he says, “was the point where I felt like I can be the dude I always thought I could be.” An all-time great sports nickname, “Mr. Big Shot,” was born.
During Game 1 of that very series, an increasingly familiar face sat courtside. LeBron James — 18 years old, and still two months from being chosen No. 1 overall in the 2003 NBA draft — gushed over McGrady’s felonious posterization of Mehmet Okur. Neither he nor Billups could imagine that the high school phenom would experience His Moment on the very same court just four postseasons later.
The NBA looked different on May 21, 2007, when the Cavs tipped off against the Pistons in The Palace of Auburn Hills. It was their second consecutive postseason meeting. Detroit won the previous matchup, LeBron’s first postseason, in seven games. Detroit had held Cleveland to the lowest point total in any Game 7 in league history. In ’07 the NBA had yet to fall completely in love with the 3-point shot. Kobe Bryant still searched for a post-Shaq title. James’ current running mates, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, were in high school.
And before LeBron’s Game 5 heroics came Game 1’s, for lack of a better term, decision.
The Pistons — led by Billups, Richard ‘Rip’ Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace — harassed James all night in the series opener. Double teams. A healthy dosage of hard contact. ’Bron, despite nearly notching a triple-double with 10 rebounds and nine assists, only had 10 points on 5-of-15 shooting. Down 78-76 in the waning seconds of the game, James opted against taking a contested but makeable layup, instead zipping the ball to the corner — Donyell Marshall was wide-open. Marshall missed. And though Detroit eventually won 79-76, the home team was anything but pleased. In the Pistons’ locker room was an aura of having barely escaped. “It’s a positive that we won,” Wallace said after the game, “but it’s a negative because we didn’t feel like we won.”
And per a routine that has been consistent throughout his entire career, what LeBron did in the loss (as opposed to what the winners did to win) was the sexy post-game debate topic. Twitter was new, James himself didn’t join until 2010. But in newspapers, in comment sections, chat rooms and in barber shops from Compton to Cleveland, LeBron’s decision to defer the final shot dominated discussion.
“I like my teammates to be able to knock down open shots even if I can get all the way to the rim—and kick it out for a three,” James had said prophetically before Game 1. “I like the satisfaction of guys like Sasha [Pavlovic], Anderson Varejao, Donyell Marshall, Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and all those guys on our team to feel like they’re important on our team.” He stuck to the script after the game, too. “I go for the winning play. The winning play when two guys come at you and a teammate is open, is to give it up. It’s as simple as that.”
Marshall, who made six threes in the previous game to help send the Cavs to the East finals, saw the beating James took. “It’s one of those things where it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” says Marshall, today the head basketball coach at Central Connecticut State University. “Should he have taken the shot? Maybe. But why? Because he’s LeBron James? At the end of the day, if I make the shot, nobody is saying anything.”
In private, the backlash didn’t seem to bother James. What did agitate him were the critiques of his teammates being less than worthy of his once-in-a-generation skill set. Historically trustworthy of his teammates, dating back to his high school days, bashes against them only fortified the Cavaliers’ bond. He’d turned 21 five months earlier, yet Marshall saw a veteran’s cool in James. And while the entire country chastised him, James leaned even more closely on his crew. “One of the very many things I respect about ‘Bron,” says Billups, “is he’s always been comfortable with who he is, and who he was. ‘Bron’s the kinda guy … wired to make right play at the end of the game. And all game. He puts pressure on the coach to make sure everybody in the game can make a shot, because they might get it.”
The next day, in practice, head coach Mike Brown ran the same exact play. He put a few seconds left on the clock. And he put Marshall in the same exact spot. LeBron again drove to the basket and beamed a pass to Marshall. “I make the shot and LeBron and the whole team run and mob me like we had just won Game 1,” Marshall recalls laughing. “We actually made a joke out of it.”
As the series plowed along, the intensity skyrocketed. A trip to the Finals hung in the balance—Cleveland’s first as a franchise or Detroit’s third journey in four seasons. The Pistons captured the first two games on its home floor. In Game 2, both LeBron and Larry Hughes missed what would have been game winners, throwing gasoline on the conversation which began after the opener. Cleveland captured Games 3 and 4 at Quicken Loans Arena, tying the series. LeBron led the charge in both.
The first four games were decided by a total of 16 points. The stage was set for a critical Game 5 in Detroit where Cleveland was 1-5 in the previous two postseasons. What lay on the horizon was one of the most prolific performances in NBA history. The Moment that would announce the arrival of a kid called “The King.”
Brian Albritton Jr. attended Game 5 with his father, along with a friend and his friend’s father on May 31, 2007—the same day Kobe Bryant made headlines by demanding a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. Albritton Sr. and Jr. are Detroit natives and—like father, like son—are diehard Pistons fans. After having completed his junior year at Hampton University, Brian Jr. was home to decompress, and to visit family. A suite at the Palace, thanks to his friend’s dad, was the hottest ticket in town. Though Brian Jr. was not sold on the hype around LeBron James.
“Back then,” says Albritton, now 31 and an account executive at Qualtrics, “I was part of the ‘Carmelo’s better than LeBron’ camp.” He was far from alone. Throughout The Palace ran the belief that no one man could beat the Pistons, who in 2007 were the Eastern Conference equivalent of the San Antonio Spurs with regard to their willingness to play team basketball.
The Cavs remained in striking distance of the Pistons through the first three and a half quarters. LeBron was his normal self—scoring when needed, distributing the ball to teammates. Midway through the fourth quarter, though, a flip switched. Exit LeBron James. Enter Freight James. A 17-foot jumper from LeBron gave the the Cavs an 81-78 lead with six minutes left. Aside from a Drew Gooden free throw, James would be the lone Cavalier to make a field gold in the final 17:48. He was the only one to score—period—in the final twelve minutes and forty-nine.
In Albritton’s suite, jaws dropped. People in the crowd looked at each other, some for comfort, some just to make sure what was happening wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t. It was Detroit’s nightmare. LeBron was coming. And there wasn’t a force in the world built to derail him that night. “It was one of those situations where you’re conflicted because you’re watching greatness,” Albritton says, “but he’s putting it on you.”
Even Donyell Marshall didn’t quite realize exactly what was happening. “It’s great to be a basketball player. It’s great to be on the floor with the guy,” Marshall says. “But you don’t really get to see what he did, because you’re in the moment.”
Albritton, meanwhile, felt the momentum shift with each James bucket, but refused to believe the inevitable. “I was like, ‘Yo, [the Pistons are] still going to win this. He can’t do this by himself.’” A driving and-1 layup and three pointer were appetizers: with less than forty seconds left in regulation, the Pistons held an 88-87 lead. The Palace was on its feet. In disbelief, but on its feet, regardless. Albritton felt alone in an arena of over 22,000. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.
James used a hesitation and between-the-legs dribble to propel himself toward the rim. He threw down a thunderous dunk, the violence of which reverberated loudly throughout The Palace and on televisions across the country. The flush was so violent, All-Defensive Second Team member Tayshaun Prince cut his losses by getting out of dodge. After a Billups 3 that gave Detroit a two-point lead and Brian Jr. belief that his assertion of James’ one-man explosion not being enough, came another James dunk. Then Billups barely missed the game winner.
Tied game. Overtime. Unfortunately for Albritton, James was only getting started.
In the first extra five minutes, the Pistons punched back like any champion would. But James—a leaping, sprinting, shooting, uncontrollable weapon of mass destruction in signature Nike Zoom Soldier 1 Witness PEs—responded with full force. “I just remember saying, ‘He can’t keep this up,’” Albritton recalls. “Because he was the only person scoring! It was literally like the four might as well not even come down the court on offense.”
The one-man inferno was by design. Get No. 23 the ball and get the hell out of his way. Donyell Marshall didn’t score a point in Game 5, but considers it one of the finest games in his 18-year playing career. According to Marshall, in the huddle, there was a sense James was doing something special. No one wanted to say much. Just let it happen.
“That was one of the first times I really heard him say, ‘You guys just get the stops for me on defense and I’ll take care of you guys on offense,’” says Marshall. “It was one of them things like, ‘Yo, you gon’ take care of the offense? We got you on defense.’ If you look at it, we banded together. We got the stops. We got him the ball and he took over.”
On the opposite end of the court, the Pistons scrambled for a solution. Any solution. A common blueprint for slowing James down, even now, is forcing him to shoot jumpers. Detroit’s best bet was to live with the results of James pulling up from 25 feet. Only they weren’t living. James was sucking the life out of the arena, one rib-cracking body blow at a time.
Anytime Billups and the Pistons had the chance to devise a scheme, they did. They talked during timeouts. They chatted between free throws. For the Pistons, a veteran squad with experience in close games, this run from LeBron was new territory even for them. They’d ended the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers dynasty three years earlier. They didn’t lose to supernovas.
“We tried everything and everybody,” says Billups. “Tay [Prince] was on him for a while, then ’Bron got cooking. Rip was like, ‘Boom, lemme take him.’ He started frontin’ Rip. Then I was like, ‘Bro, lemme take him. Probably somebody need to pressure him. Give him a different look.’ Then he started cooking me. I can honestly tell you we tried everything we had. But with the great ones, it happens. I just never seen it happen like that.”
They sent double teams. They forced him baseline. The entire time, LeBron said nothing. He wasn’t a trash talker to begin with, at least not with the Pistons. Much like with his basketball hero, Michael Jordan, Detroit was a hurdle he had to clear in order to get to the next chapter of his career. “We didn’t make it easy on him,” Billups says. “He was going to the floor hard, man. We was putting him on the wood. Hard. And he was just bouncing back, getting up, not saying nothing. He kept coming to the rack, kept doing his thing. I respect it.”
Those in Albritton’s suite sat dazed and confused. Look to the left for comfort? There was none. Look to the right? It’s someone rubbing their temples. Albritton Jr. couldn’t quite put his finger on what was happening. He leaned over to his dad. “Yo, has anyone else scored in a while? I don’t know what he’s at right now, but it feels like he has the last 50.”
“I don’t know,” said Albritton Sr. Dad was exasperated.
Maybe because, to make matters worse, they witnessed the explosion up close and personal. Their suite was on the basket where James was painting a Motown masterpiece that would make Berry Gordy jealous. LeBron’s elbow jumper over three Pistons with the shot clock expiring in the first overtime broke Albritton Jr.’s spirit. Of course Billups remembers the shot, too. “He had so many,” he says. “But that one right there was just like, ‘Aight, s–t. If we doubling, and he’s doing that, what else can we do?’ ”
As the game careened into its second overtime, an entire arena understood history was taking place. There was the step-back jumper with Prince’s defense so smothering he may as well have been inside James’ jersey. Then came the behind-the-back crossover jumper on Billups. While it wasn’t exactly Iverson on Jordan, it did seem like the soundtrack to James’ repertoire was Snoop Dogg’s classic 1993 “Serial Killa” as he gave Pistons fans Six million ways to die. Choose one.
Marv Albert, Doug Collins and Steve Kerr called the game for TNT. Albert labeled LeBron’s performance “one of the all-time in NBA history.” When James’ 3 tied the game at 107 with 1:15 remaining, Kerr dubbed the performance “Jordan-esque.” Yet and still, a familiar scenario greeted LeBron in OT2’s final seconds. Shades of Game 1 a week and a half earlier returned in full force. However unfair, after everything he’d done to keep the Cavaliers in above water, it was winning time. Sink or swim.
There was James, at the top of the key, with the game tied and the ball in his hands. Billups D’ing him up, looking him square in the eye. The Palace was on its feet again, both in awe and pleading for any sort of miracle. ’Bron cupped the ball by his waist, eyeing the clock — and Billups. Stalking prey, like a cheetah in the wild. With five seconds remaining, James made his move, gliding by Billups and splitting the double team of Tayshaun Prince and Jason Maxiell, who opted not to foul. That put James at a spot on the floor that has always been his on-again-off-again fling: the free-throw line. Marshall stood in one corner. Damon Jones was wide-open in the spot that Marshall had been in four games prior. Only this time, LeBron kept the rock for himself.
James made the layup, giving the Cavs a 109-107 victory.
When Albritton Jr. turned on the car radio, his suspicions were confirmed. James finished with 48 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals. He scored 29 of the Cavaliers’ final 30 points, and the final 25 consecutive. “I told you nobody else scored!” Albritton yelled. A decade later he admits, “That night is when I was like, ‘There’s no question about it now. He’s that deal.’ He couldn’t miss.”
LeBron was burgeoning pop culture royalty in 2007. He was one of the NBA’s biggest names with one of its brightest futures. The season prior, as a 20-year-old, he’d finished with season averages of 31 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals, trailing only Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson for the scoring title. But it wasn’t until Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals when LeBron The Phenom disappeared and made way for LeBron The Superstar. “That one performance was his validation,” says Billups, who is a full-time NBA analyst at ESPN. “It was him coming into being a grown man. It was him saying, ‘I just did this to them? Yeah, I can do this.’ You talk about confidence and momentum? It … gave him momentum for the rest of his career.”
The series ended in Cleveland the next game, giving the Cavs their first Finals appearance. And while they were swept by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs, a moment James later admitted he wasn’t mentally prepared for, it was the beginning of James’ decadelong Eastern Conference dominance: He’s appeared in every East final since 2007, sans 2008 and 2010.
As Marshall and James walked off the court after Game 5, the two allowed themselves a brief escape into euphoria. They’d backed the Pistons, the Eastern Conference gatekeepers, into a corner. They walked into the tunnel when James suddenly stopped. Pistons fans crowded around as the players disappeared to the locker room. An intense energy still permeated the arena. One Detroit fan caught ’Bron’s ear.
“We’ll see you in Game 7,” the fan guaranteed, “just like last year!”
“No,” James said with defiance, “you won’t.”