Last season, LeBron James missed the NBA playoffs for the first time since he was 21 years old, which put an abrupt end to the longest active playoff streak in the league (13 years) and the longest active Finals streak (eight years).
This season, James has led the Los Angeles Lakers back to the top of the Western Conference, and he’s hoping to get them back to the Finals, too. If Saturday was any indication of the player the Lakers are getting in the postseason, they have as good of a shot as anyone in the west.
In Game 3 of their first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, James tallied 38 points on 11-18 shooting from the field — including 4-8 shooting from behind the arc — in addition to 12 rebounds, 8 assists and 2 steals. The Trail Blazers had no answer for him.
These types of performances from James in the postseason aren’t uncharacteristic. In fact, in his last playoff run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James averaged 34 points, 9.1 rebounds, 9 assists, 1.4 steals and a block per game. However, there was no guarantee that the Lakers were going to get “Playoff LeBron” when they returned from their four-month hiatus
James is famous for how well he takes care of his body, but at 35 years old, there was no telling how long it would take for him to work his way back up to where it was before the season was suspended. While it might be premature to say he’s already activated playoff mode, he showed he was still capable of getting there on Saturday.
“He was in attack mode,” Anthony Davis said after the game. “We need him to play like that all the time. It’s tough to stop. It’s fun for us and he still makes the right plays. I told guys in the huddle, when he’s attacking it’s our job for us to make shots. We have to make shots for him, and guys were able to do that again tonight.”
It wasn’t just that James was attacking, though — it was the way he was attacking.
“He was living in the paint, living at the rim and seeking contact and trying to play the power game that he’s been so accustomed to,” Frank Vogel said of James’ game. “He was drawing contact, getting to the free throw line. We encouraged him to be aggressive shooting over the top too and he obviously knocked down four three’s. That was a big part of him getting downhill as well.”
If there are three things that James can count on even at his age, it’s his strength, size and basketball IQ, and all three of those things were on full display against the Trail Blazers on Saturday. James knew when and where to attack the basket, and when to kick it out to his teammates on the perimeter.
He had complete control of the game and, most importantly, his own game.
“Me and pacing is like a stick shift. Sometimes I was in gear 1, sometimes I was in gear 6, being able to read and react if I was in a school zone, or on a highway or on a straightaway,” James said. “Being able to have a car that can go into different speeds, and different zones depending on what the traffic is is very key.”
When James feels like he’s in control, there are few players that are more dangerous than he is, according to J.R. Smith, who played with James during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Finals runs from 2015 to 2018.
“Every time he steps on the floor he just draw so much attention and creates so much,” Smith said. “You forget how great he is because he can go out and have a triple-double and people will still talk bad about him. That’s how special he is.”
There are still things James needs to clean up like his turnovers, of which he had eight of on Saturday, but what we’ve seen from James so far is more or less what fans thought they’d get from James in the playoffs, even if it came a season later than they would have liked it to. The Lakers still have a long road to the NBA Finals, but if James continues to look this comfortable, there’s no reason to believe he and his team won’t get there.