On Monday, as LeBron James spoke to the media for the final time before beginning his first run through the NBA playoffs with the Lakers, he was even more generous with his time and happy to talk than usual.
During the more than 16 minutes he spoke with reporters (typical player interviews run around 6ish minutes), his good mood was on full display as he gave a lengthy scouting report on what makes the Portland Trail Blazers dangerous, discussed the Lakers’ Madden tournament, joked as Anthony Davis and his “buddy” Russell Westbrook walked by, explained why he’s not upset the Lakers didn’t sign his friend Carmelo Anthony, and even talked about saving Melo from drowning. Yes, seriously. He’s clearly feeling content, and ready to begin his latest attempt at a title run.
There was one thing that James was not willing to entertain, though: The idea that it’s been “a long time” since he was playing in a playoff game. When a reporter asked a question with that framing, James quickly shut it down.
“Not that long,” James corrected.
But while he’s technically right — it’s only been a little over two years since he was in the NBA Finals, after all — he also has no doubt in his mind that this run will be more difficult than any he’s faced before.
“This is the toughest one. This is the toughest championship run for me personally from the circumstances of just being in here,” James said.
The “circumstances” he’s referencing have been the source of much debate, especially since he caused a minor hullaballoo a few weeks ago by mentioning issues in the NBA bubble that were outside of his control and “off the floor.” My personal theory at the time was that the Lakers were irritated by their inconsistent practice times, something that every team has had to deal with due to limited courts in the bubble, but that Frank Vogel has mentioned as an annoyance for himself and his veteran team on several occasions, and something that almost assuredly would irk a legendary control freak like James.
However, while he still has never explained those comments, it seems practice times aren’t the only thing that have made this lead-up to the playoffs more challenging than any of James’ 13 prior ones. James mentioned the challenge of not having fans in the building, and of being isolated from his wife, three children and the rest of his family. Of not getting to sleep in his own bed.
“I’m without a lot of things that’s essential to my everyday regimen, so that’s what’s different,” James said, although not to worry, because he quickly added “as far as mentally, I’m always sharp.”
James’ teammate Alex Caruso has never been to the NBA playoffs before, and certainly hasn’t experienced them with James. Still, he did notice how much James has been locking in, and helping his teammates do the same.
“He’s been a leader. He’s been a guy that you can kind of lean and he’ll lend his voice and his educated opinion on something, and it’s usually something that’s going to benefit you. Whether that’s basketball-related or off the court,” Caruso said. “That’s kind of just who he is. If you’re on his team, he’s gonna do everything in his power to make sure that you’re good, and if he needs to help you or can help you, he will.”
James said that he’s not taking a Finals run, or anything else for granted. As he’s become fond of saying, nothing is guaranteed in 2020. Especially not when the Lakers’ first-round opponent is far better than a typical eighth seed, and there is no such thing as home court advantage for a team that worked hard every game to earn that benefit. The Lakers will also have to go through either the Houston Rockets or Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round, and likely face the LA Clippers in the Western Conference Finals and the Milwaukee Bucks in the Finals, should they make it that far. This won’t be easy, especially within the weird and taxing mental circumstances of the bubble.
But even as James preps for what promises to be the most unique playoff run he’s ever gone through, one thing is going to remain the same as it’s always been.
“I’ll just lock in, I’ve been locked in for the last couple days once I knew Portland was our opponent,” James said. “That’s really the only thing I’ve been thinking about. I prepared the same way, just some other things changed.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.