Questions surfaced about whether LeBron James has entered a different stage of his legendary career a whole lot earlier than he expected in the 2021 NBA playoffs, and now he must answer them on Thursday.
James faces elimination in Game 6 of an opening-round series when his Los Angeles Lakers host the Phoenix Suns at 10:30 p.m. ET. He is 14-0 in the first round. Only once — a Game 7 victory against the Indiana Pacers in 2018 — was he ever at risk of losing. He responded with a 45-7-8 and four steals in 43 minutes. James has only lost three other first-round games in the past 10 years.
This was his thing. He carried Sasha Pavlovic and the sorriest of rosters to the 2007 NBA Finals at age 22. For the last decade, if you had LeBron James on your playoff roster, you were guaranteed a Finals bid. The first round was a joke. Losing Game 6 or 7 to the Suns would make him the brunt of it for the first time.
There are mitigating factors. His Lakers co-star, Anthony Davis, suffered a groin injury in the second quarter of Game 4 and also missed the Game 5 loss. Starting two guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed Game 4 with a knee injury. He attempted one shot in 15 minutes of Game 5. Both Davis and Caldwell-Pope — two of the Lakers' three leading scorers during last year's championship run — are game-time decisions Thursday.
Let's be clear, though: Prime LeBron James is not losing to the Suns in the first round.
It would not matter that two-time All-Star center Andre Drummond is an awkward fit or that three-time All-Star backup Marc Gasol is a shell of his former Defensive Player of the Year self or that last year's top two Sixth Man of the Year candidates — Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder — are wildly inconsistent. Put four healthy bodies around Prime LeBron, and he is punishing a Suns team that has effectively no real playoff experience beyond an injured 35-year-old Chris Paul (bruised shooting shoulder) and Jae Crowder.
So, we must wonder now: Is James still in his prime?
Remarkably, the 36-year-old sure looked that way in leading the Lakers to last year's title and serving as the MVP favorite until a high ankle sprain derailed him this regular season. That injury cost James 26 of his final 30 regular-season games and sent the Lakers spiraling to a No. 7 seed in the inaugural play-in tournament.
Nobody was questioning James' ability to flip on a playoff switch when he dropped a triple-double and hit the play-in game-winner over Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Can he answer that same call in Games 6 and 7? Here are James' averages the nine times he has ever faced elimination in a non-Finals game: 37.6 points (61.4 true shooting percentage), 10.4 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 45.8 minutes a game.
2018 Eastern Conference finals
Game 6 (46 MIN): 46 PTS (17-33 FG, 5-7 3P, 7-11 FT), 11 REB, 9 AST, 3 STL, 1 BLK
Game 7 (48 MIN): 35 PTS (12-24 FG, 3-8 3P, 8-11 FT), 15 REB, 9 AST, 2 BLK
2018 Eastern Conference first round
Game 7 (43 MIN): 45 PTS (16-25 FG, 2-3 3P, 11-15 FT), 8 REB, 7 AST, 4 STL
2013 Eastern Conference finals
Game 7 (41 MIN): 32 PTS (8-17 FG, 1-2 3P, 15-16 FT), 8 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 1 BLK
2012 Eastern Conference finals
Game 6 (45 MIN): 45 PTS (19-26 FG, 2-4 3P, 5-9 FT), 15 REB, 5 AST
Game 7 (48 MIN): 31 PTS (9-21 FG, 1-5 3P, 12-17 FT), 12 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK
2008 Eastern Conference semifinals
Game 6 (47 MIN): 32 PTS (9-23 FG, 1-3 3P, 13-15 FT), 12 REB, 6 AST, 2 STL, 1 BLK
Game 7 (47 MIN): 45 PTS (14-29 FG, 3-11 3P, 14-19 FT), 6 AST, 5 REB, 2 STL
2006 Eastern Conference semifinals
Game 7 (47 MIN): 27 PTS (11-24 FG, 0-4 3P, 5-8 FT), 8 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL
James is 6-0 in those games since 2008 and 7-2 overall, losing only to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics and at age 21 to the Detroit Pistons, making their fourth of six straight trips to the conference finals.
All eyes will be on James to see if he can approach anything resembling those numbers in Game 6 against Phoenix. It would be a far cry from the 22-7-8 on 49/40/59 shooting splits he has averaged through the first five games — arguably his worst playoff numbers ever and easily his worst since his playoff debut in 2006.
There are plenty of built-in excuses for James to make a case he is still at the top of his game, even if he loses on Thursday night. There is his ankle injury, Davis' groin injury and the fact that their prolonged absences during the regular season forced them to face an extremely talented Suns team in the first round.
Of course, James and Davis both took the court for the first three games of this series, and what Western Conference matchup was preferable to the Suns for the defending champion Lakers? Who is to say they would have fared better against Damian Lillard's Portland Trail Blazers or Nikola Jokic's Denver Nuggets?
If James and company lose Game 6 or 7, we have to wonder whether last year's title run in the bubble was the anomaly and not his two Lakers seasons surrounding it. In three seasons since playing all 82 games and leading the NBA in minutes per night en route to his eighth straight Finals appearance in 2018, James has missed 57 regular-season games — as many as he had missed in 10 seasons prior — failed to make the playoffs for the first time since his age 21 season and faces elimination in Round 1 for the first time ever.
All of this is fine. It is what's expected from an 18-year vet who has played more minutes of NBA basketball than anyone not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Karl Malone. We are seeing that LeBron James is mortal in real time, and Thursday will be the ultimate test of whether he can still meet his peak level when he must.
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