In his 17 seasons in the NBA, LeBron James has developed a system to prepare for the playoffs.
There is a ramp-up at some point in the last third of the NBA season, a handful of games in which he pushes himself to play more minutes than most observers would probably like him to. But he does it so that he’ll know that gear is there later, when he needs it.
Then there is a brief cooldown, when he gets his legs back under him before the playoffs begin. Then there is a shutdown, when he closes himself off to the outside world until the mission — or the season — is complete.
No social media. No extra interviews. Just total focus.
This year has not been typical.
There was no ramp-up or cooldown. There was a shutdown — of the NBA season, but not of James’ social media or interviews.
In fact, on Monday, the day before the Los Angeles Lakers‘ playoff opener, James taped an interview with Cari Champion and Jemele Hill for their new show on Vice TV, noting, “I don’t let many people see me inside my room right now.” But he wanted to support them in their new endeavor and discuss his More Than a Vote initiative.
In the bubble, it has taken James and the Lakers a while to get back to the dominant form they showed before the season was suspended. These are unlike any other playoffs in league history.
James had a 23-17-16 triple-double in Game 1, but it came in a loss that saw him miss his only two fourth-quarter free throws and make only one basket in the last seven minutes. Despite a blowout win in Game 2, James had only 10 points, with more turnovers (six) than field goals (4-of-11).
Finally, in the third game of the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Portland Trail Blazers, James seemed to find the dominant flow he has shown in 14 other trips to the postseason.
“I just think my offensive pace tonight,” James said, setting up an elaborate car metaphor that actually worked very well to describe his play, “at times I was fast, slow, medium-paced. It was like a stick shift. Sometimes I was in gear 1, sometimes I was in gear 6. Being able to read and react, depending on whether I had the cruise on or was in a residential area or the highway or I was on the straightaway. Being able to have a car that can go in different speeds and zones, depending on what the traffic is, is very key.”
James finished with 38 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists to lead Los Angeles to a 116-108 win over Portland to take a 2-1 series lead. He did it by attacking everything in his path.
“LeBron finally got hot,” Lakers shooting guard Danny Green said. “It’s the first time. … We haven’t had a game where everybody has been hot. He was on from start to finish.”
Of course, there’s a pretty direct correlation between James getting hot and the rest of the Lakers getting hot. As the team’s primary ball handler and shot-creator, James has a way of lifting all boats on his rising tide. He attacks the rim, then 3-point shots are open. He hits from 3, then passing and cutting lanes open for everyone else.
On Saturday, James attacked so much that it spurred Anthony Davis out of another first-half funk. The Lakers big man was quiet in the first half, but Davis scored 23 of his 29 points in the second half.
“I told Bron at half, I have to take some of the pressure off of him,” Davis said. “I missed a ton of free throws [five of nine first-half attempts]. I didn’t want him to have to carry the team the whole time, where he didn’t have to try to come down and score every time.
“He was in attack mode. We need him like that all the time. When he’s attacking, it’s our job to make shots.”
James attacked the rim so much on Saturday that he went to the free throw line 17 times, marking his most attempts in a postseason game since Game 2 of the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals and his most in any game since he joined the Lakers two summers ago. All nine of the fouls James drew in Game 3 led to free throws.
There also has been a shift in James’ shot diet. In the 2018 postseason, he attempted 121 midrange shots (making 59, 48.8%). Through three postseason games in 2020, James has yet to attempt a midrange shot; he attempted 198 such shots in the regular season and was 3-of-17 on midrange shots in seeding games. In the playoffs, it has been all in the paint, the free throw line and from 3-point distance.
James was 32 in 2017, just one year removed from what will likely go down as the greatest accomplishment of his career: leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA title. He was still squarely in his prime then.
On Saturday, at 35 years, 236 days old, James surpassed Michael Jordan as the oldest player with a 35-10-5 game in the playoffs, according to Elias Sports Bureau data.
For as long as he continues at this level, James’ age will be part of the discussion. When there are moments or matchups against contemporaries, such as his good friend Carmelo Anthony, it will seem extra meaningful.
But those moments also are points of comparison. Anthony, 36, was excellent for stretches of Saturday’s game, particularly in the third quarter, when he scored 13 of Portland’s 29 points. Anthony also has been one of Portland’s most effective defenders on James in this series, holding him to 4-of-12 from the floor, with five turnovers.
But Anthony’s big moments are moments. He had 13 points in the third quarter but just seven points the rest of the game.
In contrast, James sustained that level of play throughout. He emphatically ended the game with a powerful drive past Jusuf Nurkic, Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. for a layup, followed by a back-breaking 3-pointer to extend the Lakers’ lead to 14.
It was part of a fourth quarter in which James and Davis combined to score or assist on the final 21 Lakers points of the game.
The Trail Blazers looked exhausted by James’ onslaught, which was especially cruel for a team that has come so far since the NBA season resumed and has overcome so much (a season-ending injury to power forward Zach Collins, All-Star Damian Lillard‘s dislocated finger and Nurkic’s heavy heart after his grandmother died of COVID-19).
Portland has trailed in the fourth quarter in of all but one of its 12 games in Florida. There was no comeback against the Lakers on Saturday. If anything, the Lakers’ defense clamped down on the Trail Blazers even harder in the second half. Los Angeles contested 11 of 12 Portland 3-point attempts, according to Second Spectrum, and held the Trail Blazers to 43.2% from the field in the second half.
Afterward, Anthony acknowledged that James’ aggressive mindset was a factor.
“We expected that,” Anthony said. “I expected that, for him to come out the way he did. He was aggressive. He’s going to continue to be aggressive, so that’s something that we’ve known that’s something that we have to be aware of. Game 4 is coming up, so we should be aware of that. We get back in the gym tomorrow, watch film, see what we gotta do, see what we did wrong, correct those mistakes. Some of the things are on us, but we’ll figure that out. But we’re thinking about Game 4 at this moment.”
Portland will make adjustments. The series is not over. James knows that there is room for improvement, in spite of the welcomed assertiveness.
“I have some very careless turnovers that I can get better at,” he said. “And when you go to the free throw line, you gotta hit those free throws. So I gotta do a better job with both of those.”