Over 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 where 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 cool down, where he gets his legs back under him before the playoffs begin. Then there is a shutdown, where 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 cool down. There was a shutdown – of the NBA season. But not of James’ social media or extra interviews.
In fact, on Monday, the day before the Los Angeles Lakers playoff opener, he taped an interview with Cari Champion and Jemele Hill for their new show on Vice TV, noting that “I don’t let many people see me inside my room right now,” but he wanted to support them in their new endeavor, as well as discuss his More than a Vote initiative.
In the bubble, it’s taken James and the Lakers a while to get back to the dominant form they’d shown before the season was shut down. Because 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 of the contest. And despite a blowout win in Game 2, James had only 10 points, with more turnovers (six) than field goals (4-of-11).
But finally, in the third game of the quarterfinals against the Portland Trail Blazers, James seemed to find the dominant flow he’s 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 eight assists to lead Los Angeles to a 116-108 win over Portland to take a 2-1 series lead. And 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 ballhandler and shot creator, James has a way of lifting all boats on his rising tide. He attacks the rim, 3-point shots are open. He hits from 3, passing and cutting lanes open for everyone else.
On Saturday, James attacked so much, it spurred Anthony Davis out of another first half funk. The Lakers big man was quiet in the first half, but 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 [Davis missed five of nine first half free throws]. 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, the most attempts he’s hand in a postseason game since Game 2 of the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals and 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.
And there has been a shift in James’ shot diet. In the 2018 postseason, James attempted 121 mid-range shots (making 59, 48.8 percent). Through three postseason games in 2020, James has yet to attempt a mid-range shot; he attempted 198 mid-range shots in regular season, and was 3-of-17 on mid-range shots in seeding games. 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.
On Saturday night, at 35 years and 236 days old, James surpassed Michael Jordan as the oldest player with a 35-10-5 game in the playoffs, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
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, like his good friend Carmelo Anthony, it will seem extra meaningful.
But those moments are also points of comparison. Anthony, 36, was excellent for stretches of Saturday night’s game, particularly in the third quarter when he scored 13 of Portland’s 29 points. Anthony has also 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 just 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. And in the fourth quarter, he emphatically ended the game with a powerful drive past Jusuf Nurkic, Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. for a layup, then a back-breaking 3-pointer to extend the Lakers lead out to 14 late in the game.
It was part of a fourth quarter in which James and Anthony Davis combined to score or assist on the last 21 Lakers points of the game.
The Trail Blazers looked exhausted by James’ onslaught. Which was especially cruel for a team that had come so far since the NBA season resumed and overcome so much (a season-ending injury to power forward Zach Collins, All-Star Damian Lillard’s dislocated finger, center Jusuf Nurkic’s heavy heart after his grandmother died).
Portland has trailed in the fourth quarter of all but one of its 12 games in Florida. But there was no comeback against the Lakers on Saturday night. If anything, the Lakers’ defense clamped down on the Trail Blazers even harder in the second half. They contested 11-of-12 Portland three-point attempts according to Second Spectrum, and held the Trail Blazers to 43.2 percent from the field in the second half.
Afterwards, Anthony acknowledged that James’ aggressive mindset was a factor.
We expected that,” Anthony said of James’ dominance after Game 3. “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. And 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,” James 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.”