In early July, a couple of days before the Los Angeles Lakers boarded a plane for Orlando, Florida, hoping their trip would extend to the NBA Finals in October, Jared Dudley made a prescient remark.
“[LeBron James] is ready for this moment, you can tell,” Dudley said. “You can see in his beard he’s ready, he’s ready to lower it down and put that Bigen [hair dye] in. ASAP.”
Sure enough, James’ unruly facial hair was shaped with shears and the flecks of gray were painted black before the Lakers’ restart opener against the LA Clippers. He once again looked the part of the guy who was dominating the league before the hiatus hit in March, although his run through the seeding games that followed was bumpy, at best.
Now, for the Lakers to be the last team standing, James has to overcome some daunting obstacles. His roster is still sorting through chemistry questions amid quick turnover, his superstar sidekick is unproven in grueling playoff series and one of James’ toughest tests yet could be waiting in the Western Conference finals.
James will receive no extra attention from fans lining up outside the Lakers’ hotel to get a glimpse of their hero. No goose bumps from the roar of the crowd. No satisfaction from silencing a road arena.
“You have to really love basketball to be here, because there’s no extra motivation as far as the excitement from the crowd and things of that nature,” James said of the bubble environment. “You have to really, like, love the game and love the work and be able to lock in on your craft, and that’s something that I actually love.”
The road to all three of James’ titles was tough, but he said this week that he believes he is embarking on the most difficult championship push in his career. To clear these hurdles, he has to be more than ready, because anything less than a ring would mean heartbreak. — Dave McMenamin
The delicate on-court chemistry
Once the Lakers completed their multiplayer deal to pair Anthony Davis with James, their crown jewel, one question persisted: Do the Lakers have enough depth to win it all?
That’s why, when Avery Bradley opted out of participating in the bubble for family reasons — his 6-year-old son, Liam, has a respiratory condition that puts him at high risk if he were to contract COVID-19 — the Lakers’ front office knew the skill set of the veteran guard would be difficult to replicate.
So did James. The player who has arguably done more with less than any other superstar throughout the course of his NBA career recognizes how complementary players can often tip the scales. Bradley relentlessly hawks ball handlers, often goading them into flummoxed decisions under the weight of his pursuit. His ability to fight through screens also enabled the Lakers’ bigs to comfortably drop into the paint and protect the rim.
The Lakers knew they’d miss Bradley on the defensive end, but as it turns out, they’ve also been pining for his ballhandling and perimeter prowess. While Bradley is by no means an elite shooter, he was a capable scorer, averaging 8.6 points and shooting a respectable 36.4% from the 3-point line. A swath of potential candidates to stick a 3 here and there in Bradley’s absence faltered miserably during the seeding games. While Rajon Rondo is back practicing with the Lakers following thumb surgery, he won’t help much from deep, and a timetable for his return to games remains uncertain.
It might have been too much to expect players such as Dion Waiters, who languished with the Miami Heat for the early part of the year as a recalcitrant bench player, or JR Smith, who was out of basketball altogether, to step in and instantly jell with a contending team that has no time to integrate fresh blood.
This is not to suggest that if Bradley were to miraculously return (which has zero chance of happening) that all of the Lakers’ woes would dissipate. It’s merely an indication of the delicate nature of team chemistry and how removing one piece from the puzzle lays responsibility at the feet of those who might or might not be up to the task of filling the designated hole.
When James identifies the double-team on Davis and recognizes the need to swing the ball and find the open shot, he doesn’t have to hesitate if Bradley is waiting on the wing. There is trust and muscle memory there. Seeking out that synergy among a slew of players auditioning for the role while simultaneously trying to hold up the mantle as the top team in the West is a weighty task.
James is used to dragging his less-gifted teammates across the finish line. But he also understands the value of unsung contributors — such as Tristan Thompson with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Mike Miller in Miami, both of whom came up big when it mattered.
Davis is one of the most talented sidekicks James has ever had. Whether that will be enough to fill the void of a roster whose depth is so precarious. The absence of a nice player such as Bradley has left the Lakers wobbly at a time when opponents are cementing their camaraderie and gunning for a team that is suddenly showing more vulnerabilities than it did in March. — Jackie MacMullan
The pressure on his sidekick
It didn’t take long for James and Davis to become the most prolific passer-shooter duo in the league. In their first season together, they linked up for 222 buckets, the most of any NBA pairing. But can that partnership level up in a playoff pressure cooker?
In 2020, we know what to expect from James. His sustained excellence is nothing short of incredible, and he’ll elevate his game when it matters. Davis is another story. While James has played more than 10,000 minutes of playoff basketball, Davis has yet to hit 600. James has been to nine NBA Finals. Davis has competed in three total postseason series, winning only one.
For James to meet his lofty goals this fall, he needs Davis to do something the seven-time All-Star big man has never done before: dominate playoff basketball games against the very best teams over a long run.
“I think the target is a lot bigger,” Davis said this week. “When you’re the underdog, you get wins and win games you’re not supposed to. You don’t necessarily have a target on your back. But when you’re a favorite, the pressure is more on you to win games than the other team.”
James’ biggest postseason triumphs have always featured other superstar teammates helping at key times. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were massive contributors in 2012. Ray Allen made the biggest shot of 2013. Kyrie Irving hit the biggest one of 2016. Can Davis do something similar this year?
Davis certainly has the talent to be the best player in any game this postseason. But these questions are fair until we see how he performs down the stretch of an elimination game against a great squad.
James Harden gets ridiculed for his lack of postseason success, yet he pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink in 2018. Kyle Lowry was dinged for his playoff disappearances until all that experience helped him lead the Toronto Raptors to a surprise title last season. There just isn’t the same baseline for Davis in these moments yet.
And this roster leaves little room for error. If teams are focused on James and not threatened by the other dudes, that means all eyes will be on Davis to exploit opponents’ weaknesses. With James needing more help than ever, it’s going to take consistently dominant performances from Davis to get these Lakers over the hump. — Kirk Goldsberry
The looming stoppers
In the final month of a grueling 2014 postseason, two defenders drew the task of guarding James as their primary assignment: Paul George with the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, then Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.
Few defenders have ever locked up James, especially when he was 29 and at the height of his powers, but he didn’t have an easy time in either matchup. James’ Heat were held to 92.6 points per 100 possessions when James faced off against George in the half court, then 97.0 points per 100 possessions against Leonard, according to Second Spectrum. The quality of James’ shots in the half court was decidedly worse than his regular-season total.
If James is going to reach his 10th Finals, he will have to get the best of Damian Lillard and one of the more dangerous 8-seeds in recent memory, the Portland Trail Blazers, and then outduel either Harden’s Houston Rockets or Chris Paul’s Oklahoma City Thunder in the semifinals. Those challenges won’t come without their trials, but they’re mild compared to what James will encounter if the Lakers meet a Clippers team that features both George and Leonard.
Any team that hopes to defeat James must have someone to defend him. These guys are typically called “wing stoppers,” and the best versions look something like Leonard and George. Each is squarely in his prime, roughly the same age James was in 2014, while James would be three months shy of his 36th birthday during the conference finals. James is the most enduring NBA superstar in league history, but he has never confronted an opponent with this kind of two-way depth.
George is a spidery defender with an instinct to disrupt a scorer using his length. Over the years, his feel for the game has heightened his sense of anticipation to otherworldly levels. Meanwhile, Leonard is the best wing defender of his generation, his physicality so invasive that opponents appear visibly uncomfortable in one-on-one situations. Then there are those hands — massive vises that render every possession a potential steal.
Over the past several years, James has demonstrated that with a little rest, he can still be the most dominating force in the NBA. When he defeated the favored Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, he played in only 21 games over 63 days. Furnished with a six-month hiatus last summer after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005, James returned rejuvenated; there was no “flip-switching” when the Lakers ran away with the Western Conference this season.
That’s good for James: A showdown with Leonard, George and possibly the deepest team he has ever faced in a postseason will require every ounce of energy and guile. For years, there were elders standing in the way of his aspirations. Now, he’s that guy. — Kevin Arnovitz
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