"He would signal to coach to sub out Ilgauskas" - Gilbert Arenas recalls LeBron James' insane IQ in his first-ever playoff series

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On April 22, 2006, LeBron James made his highly anticipated NBA playoff debut. After three years of shattering individual records but not qualifying for the postseason, the league was starved for its biggest draw to take center stage.

Few players come prepared to play in their first playoff from jump ball. But James wasn't just ready. He was already breaking down his opponent from A to Z using his brilliant mind. This helped him easily exert his dominance over the Washington Wizards.

In an interview with The Ringer's Logan Murdock, former NBA star Gilbert Arenas remembered what it was like standing across No. 23 in a playoff setting. Arenas was both fortunate and unfortunate to have been the first one to match up with LeBron in his playoff debut. He was probably impressed by a lot that night. But what stood out to him the most was James' IQ.

"[LeBron James] would signal to coach [Mike Brown] to sub out [Zydrunas] Ilgauskas," Arenas told Murdock. "When Ilgauskas got subbed out, obviously, we will sub out Brendan [Haywood]. That opened the floor for LeBron to score at will. Now LeBron is the biggest dude on the court besides Jared Jeffries. … No one was stopping the freight train from getting to the rim."

LeBron's heroics

From the beginning, James wanted to be different. Though it's human nature to feel overwhelmed by the constant media swirl and cameras following your every move, he was as good as anyone when it came to handling all the attention.

For most former highly sought-after rookies, their first professional game is filled with nervousness and anxiety. But while the stage was new for him, playing in front of a national audience had already become second nature to LeBron when he was a teenager.

When the Cavs and the Wizards were in a tight playoff battle down the stretch, the world was waiting to see how this young man would handle another situation he wasn't supposed to know how to handle. The 21-year-old James showed on another big stage that he was more than advertised.

With the game tied, he hit a 3-pointer to give his team the lead. On Washington's next possession, LeBron took the ball and bolted up the court for a layup and a foul. Within a blink of an eye, the Akron native led the Cavs to a 12-0 run late in his playoff debut, sealing the win.

The crowd didn't need any prompting: They broke out in "M-V-P" chants to celebrate. No. 23 was the first to register a triple-double in his first playoff game since Magic Johnson in 1980. His totals: 32 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists.

The best playoff debut ever?

A triple-double in your first postseason game is no small feat, especially against a team with a 24-year-old superstar coming off his highest-scoring season. If there is no one thing you could argue against, James' opponent was just the 22nd-ranked defense in the NBA.

From a scoring standpoint, there have been higher-scoring debuts, headlined by Luka Doncic's 42 points against the Los Angeles Clippers in 2020. D'Aaron Fox also hit the ground running against the defending champion Golden State Warriors last year, scoring 38 points. In 2022, Anthony Edwards poured in 36 points against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Of course, no one can forget rookie Derrick Rose's 36 points and 11 assists against the defending champion Boston Celtics in 2009. The electric guard stunned Paul Pierce and Co. with his unstoppable attacks of the basket. The Bulls took the 105-103 victory in TD Garden.

So, while James' performance stands among the greatest playoff debuts ever, it's clear that he has some stiff competition.

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