LeBron James dusted off his old playbook right before the lockdown. Then he showed off some new tricks.
Just days before the NBA suspended its season on March 11, James averaged 32.5 points on 50.0 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds, and 8.5 assists in consecutive victories against the Bucks and Clippers, the other two title favorites besides the Lakers when the season resumes in Orlando. But more important than his gaudy numbers was how he got them. Instead of resting on defense, LeBron matched up with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard on both ends of the floor.
Facing off against two younger superstars is a different kind of challenge for the four-time MVP at this stage of his career. LeBron (35) has seven years on Kawhi (28) and a full decade on Giannis (25). For the first time in his life, he’s no longer the best athlete on the court. LeBron has to find a new way to win.
The good news for the Lakers is that he has always been more than an athlete. He’s also one of the smartest players to ever play the game. No one learned the lessons of the last decade of postseason basketball more than LeBron, largely because he was the one handing those lessons out.
The best recent example came in the fourth quarter against the Clippers on March 8, when LeBron ruthlessly hunted Lou Williams in the pick-and-roll. It didn’t matter whom Lou Will was guarding. The whole point of the play these days is to target weak defenders like Williams in space—a technique James has mastered.
The Clippers tried to hide Williams on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, and Danny Green, but there’s no hiding on defense against LeBron. All three guards screened for LeBron to force Williams into a no-win decision almost every time down the floor. It didn’t matter whether he switched, hedged, or dropped back. LeBron had an answer for everything:
It was a preview of what we would see in a playoff series between the two L.A. teams. Williams, despite being a three-time Sixth Man of the Year and an elite fourth-quarter scorer, would be a massive liability at the ends of games.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel also played a smaller lineup to expose Williams. He moved Anthony Davis to center and played three shooters in Bradley, Green, and KCP around LeBron, making it impossible for the Clippers to help Williams without creating an opening somewhere else. The Lakers have kept those lineups in their back pocket to prevent Davis from getting worn down during the regular season. Their lineups with two traditional big men at the 5—JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard—are far less dangerous because neither can score outside the paint.