It’s become a staple of the playoff-watching experience: LeBron James, ball on a rope, world in his palm, looking for the defender he wants to exploit, and directing the movements of his teammates like pieces on a chess board until he finds a way to force the switch which puts the defense in check. He cycles through the options until he finds the one he prefers – a small guard to roll into the post, a heavy cross to cross on the way to the rim, an outclassed head-to-head defender who will need some help. help LeBron can then further operate with his death. And then, having chosen his career, King James attacks, going where he wants, to do what he wants, when he wants.
We’ve seen this streak unfold countless times over the past decade; you could probably draw one of these from memory. You know exactly what it looks like.
This is not what it looks like:
A few times in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals on Thursday, James worked his way into a comfortable game – against brave Nikola Jokic, rookie Michael Porter Jr., half-idle Paul Millsap and little combo guard Jamal Murray – and just sort of… wasn’t going anywhere. He took his time, danced a little, and ate the stopwatch; then, unable to find an angle of approach that would allow him to breathe by his man and make his way to the cup, he would eventually settle for the kind of self-effacing rescue jumper you’d imagine eliciting sighs of relief from the Nuggets bench.
I’m not coming to bury LeBron James, or to call the greatest player of his generation washed out, or even necessarily to say he’s slowed down to a dramatic degree. After all, he just put 26-9-8 in a 114-108 win that puts the Lakers to a win of his 10e Appearance of the NBA Finals. He remains the best basketball player in the world, the one you would choose over all the others if you are absolutely had to winning a game here and now; he’s still the brightest light in the league. It seems, however, that the times when that light twinkles, just a little bit, have been a bit more pronounced lately. And that feels weird.
It’s weird to see LeBron struggle to roast the kind of guy we’re used to seeing him do just that. It’s weird watching him in a playoff series, watching what Anthony Davis is doing, and feeling like LeBron for the first time might not always be his team’s best option when it’s time to. get a bucket. It’s weird, frankly, to feel weird about all of this, because of course those kind of decreases and changes will happen at some point – we’re talking about a 35-year-old with over 59,000 regular and NBA playoff minutes on his body! And that seems weird because LeBron always does so many things so well and is so deeply aware of what it takes to get back to the top of the mountain that it’s hard to know if what you’re looking at is Actually the light starts blinking, or just an all time legend ensuring its battery is fully charged for when it really does, really needs it.
“I’m not saving any energy – I’m on the ground, giving everything I’ve got,” James told reporters after the match. “If I need a break, I ask for a break. The coach did a good job of getting me out throughout the game. I don’t see it as a reserve tank. I have pretty good energy when I’m on the floor all the time. Now is the time to win and I have neither the chance nor the time to feel tired.
“I am tired now. It’s when I’m tired, when there are zeros on the clock. This is where I get tired. I am not tired during the game. “
One thing LeBron hasn’t done very well lately is hitting jumpers. He missed 11 of his 18 field goal attempts in Game 4. With his jumper offline, as has been the case for a while – only 29.2% on J pull-ups in this playoff – James’ most reliable source of attack has come in transition, either by beating Denver’s defense to the brim or slashing through a backing defender to earn a trip to the line:
These bridging buckets were and remain the cornerstone of the Los Angeles offense. Big reason why: They give LeBron the chance to get down and attack all the way in the chaos of a sprint race. Not only does LeBron lead the playoffs in points scored on the quick break, he has 20 more than any other player in the playoffs; 20.4% of his total points came on those transition opportunities, which usually end with LeBron finishing up front of the rim. It’s a many A higher percentage of play for LeBron than shooting from anywhere else (he’s only shooting 35.2% outside of paint in these playoffs) or working to unlock a fixed defense that he can’t possibly be in. -be more able to dust everyone off the dribble, and especially in the later stages of the game.
As TrueHoopDavid Thorpe noted earlier this week that James’ offensive production in the bubble playoffs tended to wane as the game progressed; he only shoots 42.9% from the ground and 4 in 19 over a distance of 3 points in the fourth quarter of this playoff series. That trend continued on Thursday: James went just 1 for 4 from the field in the fourth.
Part of it has to do with the context; several Lakers playoff games have been well underway late in the game, and Davis has been an absolute freak throughout the playoffs, so LeBron hasn’t needed to pull off any true endgame heroics just yet. Some part, however, looks like the juice we’re used to seeing from LeBron – that hellish closing kick when he feels the chance to finish an opponent – just isn’t there to the same degree we’re used to. .
This led LeBron to research other ways to put his fingerprints on the game. On Thursday that meant he was making his way one point at a time – he went 7 for 8 from the pitch line. frank in the fourth – and, later, take defensive responsibility for the incandescent Murray, who again blitzed the Lakers. up to 32 points on 20 shots with eight assists in 45 minutes:
The 23-year-old rising star had spent most of the game keeping Denver close at hand with a series of extremely difficult and flawless finishes. None of the Lakers’ guards stood a chance of keeping Murray in front of them, and his dribbling penetration and shooting compromised the Los Angeles defense. So, six minutes to go in a two-score game, “LeBron asked for the assignment and obviously I granted it,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said after the game.
It was a significant change from the original game plan – LeBron had kept Murray on just 7.7 partial possessions in the first three games of the series, according to NBA.com game data – and it didn’t. not really dissuaded the Extremely confident Canadian to attack. But James’ size and build helped Murray make it harder to reach his favorite spots, and his length and athleticism allowed him to harass Murray in two duds on runners who could have reduced the deficit to a possession in the last minutes:
The referees could have whistled James on one or both of these runners; Murray said after the game that he was dirty. Nuggets coach Michael Malone confirmed, jokingly that he plans to take a page out of Vogel’s playbook and “go through the proper channels … to see if we can figure out how to get more free throws. . ” But the umpires didn’t, and after finishing the win at the foul line, the Lakers are now one win away from finishing the Nuggets, and LeBron is now one win away from a golden opportunity to win his fourth NBA championship.
The Lakers can’t afford to rest on their 3-1 lead, not only because the Nuggets are talented and tenacious enough to make them pay – just ask the Jazz and the Clippers – but because business in Game 5 getting LeBron to make his way to the final as fresh as he can get. By effectively exploiting favorable clashes against the Trail Blazers and Rockets in the first two laps, Vogel was able to avoid overstretching his superstars; Davis is averaging 36.1 minutes per game in the playoffs, while James is averaging 34.6 minutes in the career and has only exceeded 40 minutes once in the playoffs.
While they don’t “explicitly handle the load” in a way that would result in LeBron taking nights, relying on AD and going all the way to 10 throughout the playoffs, the Lakers did. all they could to preserve the quadruple MVP to make it this point of the year in optimal conditions. The results speak for themselves: The Lakers hammered their opponents by a whopping 16.8 points per 100 non-trash possessions with AD and LeBron sharing the field in the playoffs, according to Glass cleaning. Whatever opponent from the East waits for the final, James will face a slew of tough defenders – Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala in Miami; Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart in Boston – and offensive challenges on the other end too. The less he has to tax himself before he gets there, the better the chances of Los Angeles; the more the Nuggets can keep this streak alive, the more energy he has to expend to get there, and the harder the climb to the top becomes.
Everything about this title would be drastically different from what came before it for James, for about a billion different reasons, bubble-related and non-bubble-related. That final, enduring image of LeBron hoisting the Larry O’Brien, though? We could probably get one from memory. We know exactly what it looks like.