LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – LeBron James never took it for granted, no matter how routine it became.
He never counted on playing even one playoff game in a season, even long after it became viewed as a failure if he didn't play for a title. The NBA is hard. He only made it look easy.
And he said this postseason, his first in two years and the most unusual in league history, will be his most challenging yet.
“This is the toughest championship run for me personally, for the circumstances of just being in here,” he said after he finished practice Monday in a Disney World convention center ballroom.
His Los Angeles Lakers cruised to the best record in the Western Conference, but there are no luxuries usually afforded the No. 1 seed. There's no celebrities sitting courtside at Staples Center to boost them. There's an opponent, the Portland Trail Blazers, who took advantage of a four-month break caused by the coronavirus pandemic to get healthy and arrive with a loaded roster that's far more talented than the average No. 8 seed.
The only sure thing this time around might be James' mind.
“As far as me locking in on an opponent and individuals, that hasn’t changed,” James said. “What's different is this environment. I’m not home with my family. Not in my own bed. I’m not in our practice facility. I’m not preparing to be at Staples tomorrow with our fans. I’m not with a lot of things that’s essential to my everyday regimen. So that’s what’s different. But as far as mentally, that’s always going to be sharp.”
So are his skills, of course. He averaged 25.3 points and led the NBA with 10.2 assists per game, but the Lakers needed much more than that.
They needed someone to help steer them through tragedy after Kobe Bryant, one of the franchise's icons, was killed in a helicopter crash in January. And they continue to count on his experience as they deal with the obstacles of what's potentially a three-month road trip.
“He’s the best leader I’ve ever been around and just represents all the right things," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Oozes class and we’re just lucky to have him on our squad and leading our team.”
James was in the postseason every year from 2006-18 and they weren’t just cameos. He never lost in the first round and didn’t lose at all until the NBA Finals in the last eight years of that stretch, the first four in Miami and the last four in Cleveland.
But the first serious injury of his career, a groin injury sustained on Christmas 2018 in his first season in Los Angeles, doomed the Lakers. Their playoff hopes were long since gone when he shut it down for good at the end of March.
His return to the playoffs took longer than expected because of the season's suspension, with the usual mid-April start this time coming in mid-August. That makes it 26 months since James' last postseason game, back on June 8, 2018 in Cleveland, when the Warriors completed a sweep.
By then there was a sense that James, who would become a free agent that summer, might choose to leave the Cavaliers again.
There was no such thought it would be so long until his next postseason game.
still, his mind is on more than basketball.
He was one of the signers Monday of an open letter written by More Than A Vote, a coalition of Black athletes and artists whose mission is to “educate, energize and protect Black voters.” The coalition partnered with the Los Angeles Dodgers to use Dodger Stadium as a vote center for the presidential election in November and is aiming get more arenas and sports facilities in use.
“We want change. We’ve asked for change in our communities and we want people in our communities to know if we want change we have to make it ourselves,” James said, wearing a hat reading “I am more than an athlete.”
“Just trying to give all the resources that we can because we know how important November is, but more importantly even past November because it doesn't stop and we don't want it to stop.”
James won’t be playing NBA basketball in November and nobody knows for sure when he will again once this season is over. He will turn 36 in December, the earliest the 2020-21 season would begin, and the Western Conference is only going to get tougher.
Whatever happens, James will be ready.
“So I don’t take anything for granted, especially being in the NBA. This is my 17th season. I don’t go into any season saying, ‘OK, playoffs, playoffs, championship, championship, championship.’ I’m all about the process and whatever is at the end of that process, then I’m grateful for."
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