It’s become a staple of the playoff-watching experience: LeBron James, ball on a string, world in his palm, hunting for the defender he wants to exploit, and directing his teammates’ movements like pieces on a chessboard until he finds a way to force the switch that checkmates the defense. He cycles through options until he finds the one he prefers—a diminutive guard to steamroll in the post, a lumbering center to sprint past on the way to the rim, an overmatched one-on-one defender who will require help that LeBron can then further exploit with his passing. And then, having chosen his quarry, King James attacks, getting wherever he wants, to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to do it.
We’ve seen that sequence play out countless times over the past decade; you could probably draw one of those possessions up from memory. You know exactly what it looks like.
This is not what it looks like:
On a handful of occasions during Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday, James worked his way into a comfortable matchup—against the plodding Nikola Jokic, the rookie Michael Porter Jr., the step-slow Paul Millsap, and smaller combo guard Jamal Murray—and just kind of … went nowhere. He’d take his time, dance a bit, and eat up some shot clock; then, unable to find an angle of approach that would allow him to blow by his man and get to the cup, he’d wind up settling for the sort of fading bailout jumper that you’d imagine elicits sighs of relief from the Nuggets bench.
I come not to bury LeBron James, or to call the greatest player of his generation washed, or even necessarily to say he’s slowed down to some dramatic degree. After all, he just put up 26-9-8 in a 114-108 win that puts the Lakers one win away from his 10th NBA Finals appearance. He remains the best basketball player in the world, the one you’d pick over all others if you absolutely had to win one game right here and right now; he’s still the brightest light in the league. It does seem, though, like the moments when that light flickers, just a bit, have been a little more pronounced lately. And that feels weird.
It feels weird to watch LeBron struggle to roast the kind of guys we’re accustomed to seeing him do just that. It feels weird to watch him in a playoff series, and to watch what Anthony Davis has been doing, and to feel like for the first time ever like LeBron might not always be his team’s best option when it’s time to get a bucket. It feels weird, frankly, to feel weird about any of this, because of course these sorts of diminutions and shifts will happen at some point—we’re talking about a 35-year-old with more than 59,000 NBA regular- and postseason minutes on his body! And it feels weird because LeBron still does so much so excellently, and is so acutely aware of what it takes to get all the way back to the top of the mountain, that it’s hard to know whether what you’re watching is actually the light starting to flicker, or just an all-time legend ensuring that his battery is all charged up for when he really, really needs it.
“I don’t reserve any energy—I’m on the floor, I give it all I’ve got,” James told reporters after the game. “If I need a break, I ask for a break. Coach has done a good job of getting me out throughout the course of the game. I don’t look at it as a reserve tank. I’ve got pretty good energy when I’m on the floor all the time. It’s winning time and I don’t have a chance or time to be feeling tired.
“I’m tired now. That’s when I’m tired, when it’s zeroes on the clock. That’s when I’m tired. I’m not tired during the game.”
One thing LeBron hasn’t been doing excellently of late: hitting jumpers. He missed 11 of his 18 field goal attempts in Game 4. With his jumper offline, as it has been for a while—just 26.3 percent on pull-up J’s in these playoffs—James’s most reliable source of offense came in transition, either by beating Denver’s defense to the rim or bull-rushing his way through a backtracking defender to earn a trip to the line:
Those transition buckets were and remain the lifeblood of the L.A. offense. One big reason why: They give LeBron the chance to get downhill and attack with a head of steam in the chaos of a sprint-back scramble. Not only does LeBron lead the playoffs in points scored on the fast break, he has 20 more than any other player in the postseason; 20.4 percent of his total points have come on those transition opportunities, which typically end with LeBron finishing at the front of the rim. That’s a much higher-percentage play for LeBron than firing away from anywhere else (he’s shooting just 35.4 percent outside the paint in these playoffs) or working to unlock a set defense in which he might not be able to just dust everyone off the dribble anymore, and especially in the latter stages of the game.
As TrueHoop’s David Thorpe noted earlier this week, James’s offensive production in the bubble playoffs has tended to wane as the game wears on; he’s shooting just 42.9 percent from the floor and 4-for-19 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter in this postseason. That trend continued Thursday: James went just 1-for-4 from the field in the fourth.
Some of that has to do with context; several of the Lakers’ playoff games have been well in hand late, and Davis has been an absolute monster all postseason long, so LeBron hasn’t needed to perform any real late-game heroics yet. Some of it, though, looks like the juice we’re accustomed to seeing from LeBron—that hellacious closing kick when he senses the chance to finish an opponent off—just isn’t there to the same degree we’re used to.
That’s led LeBron to seek out alternate avenues of putting his fingerprints on the game. On Thursday, that meant grinding his way to one point at a time—he went 7-for-8 from the free throw line in the fourth—and, down the stretch, assuming defensive responsibility for the incandescent Murray, who again blitzed the Lakers to the tune of 32 points on 20 shots with eight assists in 45 minutes:
The ascendant 23-year-old star had spent the bulk of the game keeping Denver within striking distance through a series of extremely tough and unimpeachably rad finishes. None of the Lakers’ guards were having any luck keeping Murray in front of them, and his dribble penetration and shot-making were compromising the L.A. defense. So, with 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 departure from the initial game plan—LeBron had guarded Murray on just 7.7 partial possessions through the series’ first three games, according to NBA.com’s matchup data—and it didn’t exactly deter the supremely confident Canadian from attacking. But James’s size and physicality helped make it tougher for Murray to get to his preferred spots, and his length and athleticism allowed him to harass Murray into two misses on runners that could’ve cut the deficit to one possession in the final minutes:
The refs could’ve whistled James on either or both of those runners; Murray said after the game that he was fouled. Nuggets coach Michael Malone concurred, quipping that he planned to take a page out of Vogel’s playbook and “go through the proper channels ... to see if we can figure out how we can get some more free throws.” But the refs didn’t, and after finishing the win off at the foul line, the Lakers now sit one win away from finishing off the Nuggets, and LeBron now sits 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 for doing so—just ask the Jazz and Clippers—but because taking care of business in Game 5 would ensure that LeBron can head into the Finals as fresh as possible. By efficiently exploiting favorable matchups against the Trail Blazers and Rockets in the first two rounds, Vogel’s been able to avoid overextending his superstars; Davis is averaging 36.1 minutes per game in the playoffs, while James is averaging a career playoff-low 34.6 and has topped 40 minutes just once in this postseason.
While not explicitly “load managing” in a way that would result in LeBron taking nights off, by leaning on AD and going 10-deep throughout the postseason, the Lakers have done everything they can to preserve the four-time MVP to get him to this point in the year in optimal condition. The results speak for themselves: The Lakers have hammered opponents by a whopping 16.8 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with AD and LeBron sharing the court in the playoffs, according to Cleaning the Glass. Whichever Eastern opponent awaits in the Finals will feature a slew of tough defenders for James to deal with—Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Andre Iguodala in Miami; Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart in Boston—and offensive challenges for him to meet on the other end, too. The less he has to tax himself before he gets there, the better L.A.’s chances will be; the longer the Nuggets can keep this series alive, the more energy he has to expend to get there, and the tougher the climb to the summit becomes.
Everything about this title would drastically differ from the ones that came before it for James, for about a billion different reasons, bubble-related and non-bubble-related. That final, lasting image of LeBron hoisting the Larry O’Brien, though? We could probably draw one of those up from memory. We know exactly what that looks like.