LeBron James’ Best Moments in the Nike Zoom Soldier Series

  • 7. Crooked number (Soldier VII)

    LeBron’s 49-point demolition of the Nets in Game 4 of the 2014 East Semis, giving the Heat a 3-1 lead in the series, lacked just one thing: His final free throw, which he missed, costing him his first 50-point playoff game.

    “That’s the first time I’ve been disappointed in myself in a win,” James joked after the game.

    Chock full of veteran stars, the Nets were constructed in a manner designed specifically to compete with the Heat, so LeBron basically sewing up the series had to feel good. That his tremendous game came against frequent rival Paul Pierce made it that much sweeter.

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  • 6. High-stakes duel (Soldier II)

    Paul Pierce has been a consistent foil for James from the start, but no game better illustrates that than their shootout in Game 7 of the 2008 East Finals. Reminiscent of Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins in 1988, LeBron scored 45 points, but Pierce was arguably just as good with 41. Most importantly, just like in ’88, the Celtics prevailed, earning a berth in the NBA Finals.

    “I love going against the best, and Paul Pierce is one of those guys,” James said after the game. “We both are trying to will our team to victory, and just like Dominique Wilkins, I ended up on the short end. The Celtics won again.”

    Boston would win yet again the following season, ending James’ first Cavaliers tenure. But things would be different in Miami: LeBron again scored 45 in Boston in Game 6 of the 2012 East Finals, but this time, it was on the road to his first championship.

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  • 5. Stayin’ alive (Soldier III)

    Overshadowed somewhat by his game-winning shot in Game 2 (more on that later) and the fact that the Magic won the series, LeBron was magnificent in Game 5 of the 2009 East Finals. With the Cavs facing elimination, he put them on his back, posting a 37-14-12 triple-double.

    Most notably, for a player who has unjustly been criticized for not coming through in the clutch, LeBron scored 17 points in the fourth quarter alone.

    “His intensity and his passion are out of this world,” Daniel Gibson said after the game. “We will follow him. When he gets it going, there’s nothing you can do.”

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  • 4. Eat your heart out, Roger Maris (Soldier VII)

    Perhaps the biggest early indicator that LeBron was ticketed for superstardom was his passing skills, which have always been advanced. This isn’t to say he can’t be a great pure scorer, but his innate ability to be a facilitator sets him apart.

    Once in a while, though, when the circumstances dictate, LeBron demonstrates that he can score with literally anyone. This past March 3, he lit up the Bobcats for a career-high 61 points, which broke Glen Rice’s Miami team record and showed that after all these years, the King still has some new tricks up his sleeve.

    And as Shane Battier succinctly tweeted, “Any time @KingJames and I combine to score 64 points, it’s going to be a good night…”

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    3. Cramping his style (Soldier VII)

    The criticism leveled against James when cramps forced him to sit out the end of Game 1 of this past June’s NBA Finals was absurd. For physiological reasons nobody understands, LeBron is historically predisposed to cramping. The notion that it reflected poorly on LeBron’s character was total nonsense; when your body cramps up and shuts down, there’s really nothing you can do. And no, Michael Jordan couldn’t have played through it, since it wasn’t a mental thing, purely a physical one.

    That made LeBron’s performance in Game 2 of the Finals so sweet. After the Skip Baylesses of the world had a field day at his expense, James put up a magnificent 35 points and 10 rebounds, hitting all three of his three-pointers as Miami evened the series.

    “I just try to make plays out there on the floor,” LeBron said in the biggest understatement ever. “And like I continue to say, put myself and my teammates in a position to succeed and live with the results after that.”

    That the Heat lost the next three games of the Finals doesn’t take away from the personal schadenfreude of that performance. Want to light a fire under the greatest player of our generation? Try questioning his heart.

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  • 2. This Magic moment (Soldier 3)

    Oddly enough, the signature shot of LeBron’s career came during a series that didn’t end the way he’d have liked it to. But everything about his buzzer-beater three-pointer to even the 2009 East Finals with Orlando at a game apiece and give him 35 points was wonderfully iconic — from the lightning-quick shot to the thunderous crowd reaction to LeBron’s jubilant sprint back down the court.

    “You couldn’t hear anything but a roar,” James said after the game. “Those fans deserved it.”

    Five years later, the King is poised to give those same fans more moments they deserve, but perhaps this time, with a more suitable ending.

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  • 1. The genesis (Soldier 1)

    Even before Game 5 against the Pistons in the 2007 East Finals, we always knew LeBron James had the tools for greatness. But it was that watershed evening that demonstrated there were no perceivable boundaries to his potential.

    Much like Michael Jordan nearly two decades prior, to take the next step as a pro, James had to pass a gateway exam administered by a balanced and rugged Detroit squad. In a situation when the slightest misstep would have put Cleveland down 3-2, LeBron was nothing short of extraordinary, scoring 29 of his team’s final 30 points, including the final 25.

    “I’m not going to miss,” LeBron said of the zone he was in. “Not everybody gets the opportunity to be in a zone like that. I just wanted to will my team to victory and do the best job possible.”

    The Cavs would go on to clinch the series in Game 6, before finding themselves totally overmatched in the NBA Finals against the Spurs. But it didn’t take away from James’ incredible achievements that spring.

    LeBron has since won two championships and four MVP Awards, so obviously, he’s had some moments that have technically meant more to his career and legacy. But a few years before The Decision shook the bloom off the rose a bit, that one night against the Pistons sticks out for ensuring that LeBron would forever be must-see TV, and for giving us the rare opportunity to truly believe that the sky was the limit.

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It made some ripples early last year when LeBron James would at times opt for sneakers that weren’t his newest signature model, the Nike LeBron 11. He sometimes showed up for games wearing the LeBron 10, and even when he began games in the 11, he would occasionally change his kicks at halftime.

The fact was, the LeBron 11 was not a conventional offering for the King. Literally all the Zoom and Lunarlon cushioning was in the substantial insole/midsole, meaning that the sneaker didn’t mesh too well with drop-in orthotics, which LeBron tends to favor. And the rugged shell of Hyperposite that envelops the sneaker factors into a somewhat narrow toebox.

That said, it definitely seems all of that was much ado about not a whole lot. It’s not that LeBron never wore the 11 on the court, and he clearly favors the look of the sneaker. If you have the time to break it in, the sneaker gets more and more comfortable. Not to mention, the 11 sold well, so it clearly has many fans, both on and off court. (I happen to be one of them.) At this point, LeBron’s early-season issues seem to have been relegated to a footnote in the strong sneaker legacy that he is constructing for himself.

If anything, the whole episode calls attention to something hardcore LeBron fans have known for some time: The relatively unheralded Zoom Soldier line is totally underrated. Rugged enough for outdoor courts but suitable for the hardwood, Soldiers have long been a crunch-time staple for LBJ, and the VIIs — with the trademark midfoot strap and Zoom cushioning in both the heel and forefoot — were a consistent go-to this past season.

Even with no slick commercials or abundance of hype, it’s clear LeBron has always played really well in Soldiers — and everything else, for that matter. But it very well may not be a coincidence that many of LeBron’s absolute finest performances have taken place while wearing Soldiers.

To celebrate this weekend’s release of the traditional pink Kay Yow Zoom Soldier VIII at Champs Sports, honoring the late N.C. State coach’s courageous fight against cancer, here is a look at LeBron James’ Best Moments in the Nike Zoom Soldier Series.

Follow Bryan on Twitter at @SportsAngle