Since then, the Los Angeles Lakers forward has chafed at the empty arenas and his broken routines, even saying in late August that he had occasionally thought, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here.” While his wife, Savannah, was recently allowed to join him at Disney World, James noted last week that his three children remained home in Los Angeles because the bubble’s Groundhog Day lifestyle was “not a kid-friendly place.”
For all the complaints, James has settled in beautifully, so much so that the peaking Lakers come out of the second round as the title favorites. After stumbling out of the gates, the Lakers smoked Damian Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers and James Harden’s Houston Rockets in five games each to reach the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2010.
Plenty of internal and external developments have played to James’s favor in recent weeks. First, most of July’s worries — like Avery Bradley sitting out due to novel coronavirus concerns and Rajon Rondo breaking his thumb — are old news. The Lakers have posted the West’s top defense in the playoffs, and they held Lillard and Harden in check without Bradley, their backcourt defensive stopper. Rondo, meanwhile, returned to health and played some of his most effective basketball in years against the Rockets.
Los Angeles has cranked it up on both sides, with James raising his game and the Lakers taking their fearsome defense to new heights with renewed effort and focus. Some wondered whether James, at age 35, would show signs of aging in the bubble, yet the Lakers left the Blazers looking exhausted and turned the Rockets into a frustrated mess. James is averaging 26.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game in the playoffs despite playing just 34.2 minutes per game, the lowest mark of his postseason career.
Schedule logistics have helped keep James fresh too. The playoff format requires each team to play every other day, but the Lakers enter the conference finals with an extraordinary amount of rest. In light of the NBA’s three-day shutdown in August and the Lakers’ two quick series, they will have played just six games in the 24 days leading up to Game 1 of the West finals Friday. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets will play Game 7 on Tuesday, giving the winner of that hard-fought series just two days to prepare for the Lakers.
The Lakers have made progress on some other early concerns, and they have a league-best +9 net rating in the postseason to prove it. Their shooting and depth looked shaky in pre-playoff tuneups, but they have hardly struggled for offense over the last month. Anthony Davis pulverized an overmatched Blazers front line, and James got anything he wanted against the Rockets. Head Coach Frank Vogel has also received key contributions from unexpected sources including Rondo, Markieff Morris and Alex Caruso.
By ditching his traditional centers and shifting Davis into the middle against the small-ball Rockets, Vogel unlocked perhaps the most devastating lineup remaining in the bubble: James, Davis, Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green. That group has the playoffs’ best net rating of any lineup with at least 25 minutes played, and it overwhelmed the Rockets by forcing turnovers and unleashing disruptive traps.
“I don’t look at it as a small lineup,” James said, before pointing out that its five members are all 6-foot-6 or taller. “We all have this wingspan and we play hard. When you have that type of length and athleticism throughout five guys, it definitely helps clean glass, defend, be able to rotate, be able to be in communication where if something breaks down you have guys that can fly around and help as well. It’s a good lineup for us.”
As the Lakers dialed it up, their top competition floundered, or worse. The Clippers whiffed on two opportunities to eliminate the Nuggets, and they face immense pressure to close the series after blowing double-digit leads in Games 5 and 6. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have played well, but their supporting cast hasn’t fully gelled after a host of injuries and other absences. What’s more, the East’s top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks were bounced last week, thereby removing reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as a possible threat in the NBA Finals.
Looking ahead, James will enjoy a significant edge in playoff experience if the Lakers are able to reach the Finals now that the defending champion Toronto Raptors have been eliminated. After facing Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs and the Stephen Curry-Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors from 2013 to 2018, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat would represent his least tested Finals opponent since the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder. The key starters on Boston and Miami all lack Finals experience.
Perhaps this explains why James was in a jokey mood after eliminating the Rockets on Saturday, mugging for the NBA’s behind-the-scenes camera crew and hassling Davis to finish up his postgame interview so that the Lakers could load up the buses and get on with their night.
There was no guarantee that James would be in position to claim a fourth championship when he signed with the languishing Lakers in 2018, and he missed the playoffs entirely last season. Despite the bubble’s trying circumstances, he is suddenly staring at his best chance to win a title since 2016.
“This has been the longest season of my career,” James said Saturday. “With the shutdown and the pandemic and everything that’s been going on, it’s been a long year. We’re just playing good ball at the right time.”