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BOSTON — As the NBA’s great G.O.A.T. debate rages on, LeBron James passed Michael Jordan in one regard.
With a long 3-pointer late in the third quarter of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers star passed Jordan as the NBA’s all-time leading playoff scorer. James entered Thursday needing 28 points to eclipse the Chicago Bulls legend’s 5,987 career playoff points. He finished with 35 in a 135-102 win over the Boston Celtics that sent him to a seventh straight NBA Finals.
With the Cavs already leading 100-71 in the final few minutes of the third, Kyrie Irving found LeBron on the left wing, and he casually delivered a 27-footer that pushed the lead to 32 and him into history.
“It was truly special to be a part of, and we knew it, too,” Cavs forward Kevin Love said of James’ record-breaking 3. “When we drew up the play in the timeout in the third quarter, he came out and — he was shooting the ball so well — it went in, and we’re celebrating it for him. It was big. Special.”
Earlier in the playoffs, LeBron passed Kobe Bryant (5,640 points) in Game 3 of a first-round series against the Indiana Pacers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5,762) in Game 3 of the East semifinals against the Toronto Raptors, leaving only Jordan in his sights with a whole lot of basketball left to play in 2017.
LeBron’s ascension atop the NBA’s playoff scoring list isn’t likely to settle any debate. Jordan required 179 games and 7,474 minutes over 15 seasons to score his 5,987 playoff points. Thursday marked James’ 212th playoff game, and he is closing in on 9,000 playoff minutes in his 14th season. (Remember, the NBA went from best-of-five to best-of-seven in the first round in 2003, James’ first year in the league.)
“First of all, I wear the number  because of Mike,” James said of Jordan. “I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike, just seeing what he was able to accomplish. When you’re growing up and you’re seeing Michael Jordan, it’s almost like a god. So, I didn’t ever believe I could be Mike. I started to focus on myself, on other players and other people around my neighborhood, because I never thought that you could get to a point where Mike was. So, I think that helped shape my game.
“I think the biggest thing for me sitting here today after breaking the all-time scoring record in playoff history is that I did it just being me,” he added. “I don’t have to score the ball to make an impact in the basketball game. That was my mindset when I started playing the game. I was like, if I’m not scoring the ball, how can I still make an impact on the game? It’s carried me all the way to this point now, and it’s going to carry me for the rest of my career because scoring is not No. 1 on my agenda.”
To which teammate J.R. Smith, sitting to LeBron’s left, quipped: “You can pass it to me.”
There is something to be said about LeBron’s longevity. He’s only 32 years old and shown no sign of slowing down, averaging 32.3 points per game during these playoffs entering Thursday’s Game 5. He already has almost 2,000 more career playoff points than the next-closest active player, Tony Parker (4,012), so it will be a long time before anyone thinks about knocking James off the top of that list.
Even Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, who will enter the Finals with 2,872 career playoff points as a 28-year-old, is almost exactly 1,000 points behind LeBron’s pace at that same age (3,871).
James passed Kareem for second on the playoff minutes list in Game 4 of the conference finals and eclipsed Jordan for second on the playoff steals ledger in Game 2. The three-time champion’s career playoff numbers also rank him third in assists, field goals and 3-pointers; seventh in rebounds; ninth in games (now only one behind Manu Ginobili); 21st in blocks; and (welp) first in turnovers.
He ranks third in playoff Player Efficiency Rating (27.77). Michael Jordan ranks first (28.6). This debate is sure to go on in perpetuity, or at least until LeBron passes MJ in the most important number of all: Six.
“For my name to come up in the discussion with the greatest basketball player of all time, it’s like, wow,” said James, aiming for a fourth title when the Finals begin on Thursday. “Like I said, I did pretty much everything that MJ did when I was a kid. I shot fade-aways before I should have. I wore a leg sleeve on my leg and folded it down so you saw the red part. I wore black and red shoes with white socks. I wore short shorts so you could see my undershorts underneath. I didn’t go bald like Mike. …”
To which Smith, now joined by Tristan Thompson, interjected with a dramatic eye roll:
“… But I’m getting there,” added James. “It will be post-career, though. That’s the only thing I didn’t do. But other than that, I did everything Mike did. I even wore a wristband on my forearm. I didn’t do the hoop earring, either. That was Mike. But I did everything Mike did, man. I wanted to be Mike, so for my name to come up in any discussion with Michael Jordan or Kareem or all these guys that’s paved the ways for Tristan and Kevin and myself and Swish, it’s a wow factor. I don’t really have anything to say.”
It’s OK now to admit that hairline is receding, LeBron. You’re the leading scorer in NBA playoff history.
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