That LeBron James can do still do things on a basketball court he has never done before is a testament to his greatness. We just accept that anything is possible when he takes the floor, to the point that him playing as close to a perfect game in a pivotal playoff outing barely makes noise anymore, because we expect it.
But make no mistake: LeBron was immaculate against the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night.
He scored 30 points on 10-for-12 shooting (4-for-5 from three-point range) and doled out 10 assists in 28 minutes of a 135-115 victory that made the term blowout feel like an understatement. He had never before scored 30 points on better than 75 percent shooting in his playoff career. The closest he ever came was his 45-point masterpiece (19-26 FG) against the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, widely considered the greatest game ever played by the second-greatest player in NBA history.
Nobody in the past 50 years has registered 30 points and 10 assists on so few shots in the playoffs. We should also note that Blazers players finished scoreless on six shots with LeBron as the primary defender, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. Regardless of how few options Portland has to guard him, the accomplishment is simply mind-blowing, but when and how he did it makes it all the more remarkable.
And as his basketball work was done, LeBron stepped to a microphone to answer questions ranging from playing in Kobe Bryant’s memory on Aug. 24 to the police shooting of Jacob Blake with a voice of an icon.
LeBron is a few months shy of his 36th birthday. The four-and-a-half month hiatus brought on by the coronavirus pandemic makes these playoffs unlike any before them. He played 10 games in three weeks to gear up for Monday’s performance, a Game 4 that meant the difference between a series in flux or in hand. LeBron looked mortal in many of them, half of which ended in losses, including a 10-point effort in Game 2 of this series. Game 3 required 38 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists from LeBron to avoid a 2-1 deficit.
(That stat line marked the 67th time in LeBron’s playoff career that he led his team in points, rebounds and assists, the most ever, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Larry Bird and Tim Duncan are next with 21.)
Game 4 was important for his Los Angeles Lakers for more than just the obvious reasons. For much of the Orlando bubble restart, they had looked nothing like the team that entered the hiatus as heavy favorites to emerge from the Western Conference, and there were serious questions about whether LeBron could carry a team with Anthony Davis and a shaky supporting cast to the Finals some 26 months after he last did it.
Meanwhile, the Blazers played the equivalent of playoff basketball for the entirety of the restart, capturing the No. 8 seed in the West, and their Game 1 victory against the Lakers left them confident in their ability to make this a long series against a heavily favored opponent. The last thing you want to do is allow Damian Lillard to gain more confidence, so LeBron dialed up a playoff mode he usually reserves for must-win games later in his championship chase and stomped Portland. The Blazers left defeated, more so now that Lillard’s knee injury may remove even the slightest sliver of hope of getting this first-round set to a Game 7.
Now, all the Lakers need is a win on Wednesday to await their second-round opponent, either the Houston Rockets or Oklahoma City Thunder, whose series is now tied at two games apiece. The Rockets would be a frightening matchup for L.A., because their ability to shoot is a variance you cannot properly account for, but they could not do to OKC what LeBron did to Portland on Monday. And a few extra days to wait out his conference semifinals opponents has long been an ingredient to LeBron’s recipe for extended playoff runs.
If there were any doubts about LeBron’s ability to reach peak playoff form before the Lakers landed in a precarious position, those can be erased now. Simply watch how he collected his 30 points and 10 assists to be reminded of how special a player we are witnessing. He steps into a 35-footer like Lillard and steps back for another three like James Harden. He slices through defenders for an up-and-under like Kyrie Irving and backdoor cuts to a layup like Jimmy Butler. He bullies a boxout for a put-back like Joel Embiid. He orchestrates a switch onto Jusuf Nurkic, draws him out and drives to draw a foul like Luka Doncic. He sets a screen for Kyle Kuzma, rolls into the pocket he created and earns two more free throws like Rudy Gobert.
Or maybe we should just say everyone else does all these things like LeBron.
LeBron does not just draw double teams. He pulls the defense where he wants it long enough to survey the landscape, creating more space for the perfect recipient. He fires a no-look bounce pass from the baseline through a pair of defenders to Davis at the arc. He rifles a two-hand overhead crosscourt bullet to a wide-open Kuzma in the corner. He tosses lobs to JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. He hits cutters and spot-up shooters from the high post. Or he throws a 25-yard strike on the outlet without so much as a dribble.
There is no angle LeBron cannot see and no pass he cannot make. He long ago reached a point where there is no defense he has not seen, and he processes entire plays before they happen. He is Tom Brady, only he plays defense, too, with the athleticism to chase down a block two-thirds of the way up the glass.
Monday’s performance may have been aided by the fact that Portland has nobody but 6-foot-5 Gary Trent Jr. and 36-year-old Carmelo Anthony to guard LeBron. Better defenders may have prevented him from being perfect, but to know perfection is even a possibility is an incredible conceit in the playoffs, especially for someone 17 years into his career. Appreciate what he is doing, for he can still make history every night.
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