Lakers-Warriors: LeBron James looked old and hurt in Round 1; he needs a throwback series to beat the champions

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By Webdesk

LeBron James will be remembered as the victor in his war of words with Dillon Brooks. It would be hard for him not to think about the way the series ended. The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Memphis Grizzlies by 40 points in the Game 6 clincher on Friday night. Brooks had nearly as many offenses (20) as field goals (24) and he had sent-offs (1) as many as wins (2). Brooks may be humiliated now, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong. At least, not quite.

He probably shouldn’t have poked the bear, and he sure looks silly after stating that he wanted to play against a Lakers team that just beat him, but Brooks challenged James to “come and give me 4038-year-old James didn’t have to, of course, but it’s not like he came very close either by his own absurd standard.

It was only the sixth time in his career that he failed to record 29 points in a playoff series. He starred in 51 of them. The others were a combination of his worst losses (the 2007 and 2011 Finals) and his biggest outbursts (two sweeps in 2016 and a five-game win in 2013 over Chicago in which Miami’s average winning margin was over 18 points).

Dig a little deeper and you could say it was the worst playoff series James has ever won. His average of 22.2 points per game was the third-lowest average of his playoff career, beating only the 2007 and 2011 Finals. He averaged just 5.1 assists per game against Memphis, his fewest in a playoff season. series since the 2014 Finals. He had not won a playoff series by shooting under 50% from the field since 2016, but did against the Grizzlies. The Lakers posted a plus-14 net rating with James benched against Memphis. That was the team’s highest score.

The raw numbers should go back to the mean. James averaged 11.4 potential assists per game against the Grizzlies, but his teammates just missed the shots he made. James shot 19.5% from 3-point range in those six games. Take him to his career average of 34.5% and his scoring average jumps to a hair over 25. LeBron is going to hit his grades no matter what. It’s the way they come that should worry the Lakers right now.

According to Synergy Sports, James scored as many points on putbacks against the Grizzlies as he did on himself: 16 apiece. He ran pick and roll so infrequently that he only scored a total of 10 points from that play against Memphis, and what’s worse, he did it with terrible efficiency at just 0.588 points per possession. For perhaps the first time in his career, LeBron James struggled to get his own shots.

The difference between this version of James and the one who last faced the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs is huge. The shot making numbers are essentially the difference between the best player of all time and a trigger-happy sixth man.

Isolation field goal attempts per game



Pick and roll field goal attempts game



Possessions ending in a James pick and roll per game



The one-man army that stormed into Oracle Arena five years ago and almost single-handedly defeated the Warriors with 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists? That man may be gone for good. In his current state, James largely doesn’t create his photos, he finds them.

More than a quarter of James’ points in the first round (34 of 133) came in transition. As counterintuitive as it may sound for an older player to run more than ever, this is the continuation of a multi-year trend for James. He averaged about 3.3 field goal attempts per game between 2005 and 2021, never going above 3.7 or below 2.7 during that span. But last season he took a career-record 4.6 shots per game in transition, and he pushed that figure all the way up to 4.9 this season.

External factors played a role in that shift. The league is faster now than at its peak, and with Russell Westbrook hiding the paint, the Lakers had to pick up easy points at halftime wherever they could find them. But James did too. He averaged more than 13 drives per game at the peak of his abilities. Even before Westbrook’s arrival, he had dropped to 9.5 per game by 2021. Transition was a reliable way to make up points age took away from him at half court, so he picked up the pace where possible.

A more predictable product of aging is his increased reliance on spot-up shots. He recorded a career-high 2.5 per game this season, more than double his average in his last Cleveland season. He struggled to get them even before his 8-of-41 3-point shooting debacle against the Grizzlies. James scored 32.1% from 3-point range this season, his lowest as a Laker, and it’s not due to his ongoing foot and ankle injuries.

James has come up short on a regular basis this season and one of his favorite shots has almost failed him: the ultra-deep bomb. James shot 35.2% on 3-pointers at least 27 feet away from the basket over the five seasons leading up to this one, a number that underscores how important those looks are. They are backbreakers, destructive opponents and engage the audience. James often uses them to accentuate successful stretches, but they are also an important tool for keeping your distance. By taking those shots and making them, James forces the defense to guard them. Give even the older James 27 feet of runway and he’s still a lethal driver. He tried more of them this season (113) than he did in his four years with the Heat combined (87), but only made 24.8% of those looks.

He’s been trying to make up for that shooting slump by mastering the art of cutting. He scored just under 1.8 points per shot attempt on cuts this season, placing seventh overall in the NBA in batting efficiency. The younger James took those runs as they came. He held the ball so often that when he didn’t have it, he regularly devoted possessions to rest. The older version chases those glances by looking at its defender’s eyes. The moment he looks away and the ball handler has an angle, he shoots for the basket. Once he’s committed to a final cut, there’s not much a defense can do to stop him.

These adjustments are a testament to how much James has tweaked his game to combat the aging process, but they’re all meant to complement what James does on the ball. None of this matters in a world where James Xavier can’t beat Tillman one-on-one. If his injured foot dampens his individual creation as it did against Memphis, the Lakers are going to lose to Golden State.

That’s the nature of high-level playoff basketball. Steps slowly to crawling. Defenders determine your actions off the ball and the game plan around it. Small skill gaps become glaring weaknesses. Kevin Durant, a two-time Warriors champion, said so himself in 2019. “We might be able to rely entirely on our system for the first two rounds. Then we’ll have to mix individual play for the next two rounds,” Durant told The Wall Street Journal. “We have to get teams out of the way, because they are smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dig deep into my bag to create things on my own, besides the dribble, iso’s, pick-and-roll, more than the attack would create my points for me.

The Warriors now have someone who can create like that. Stephen Curry just lured Golden State into the second round with its first-ever Game 7 50-point draw. Ironically, James’ offense was once the best defense a team could play against him. LeBron frequently chased Curry in the Finals, not only to score an easy mismatch, but to tire him out so he couldn’t score as effectively on offense. It’s no coincidence that Curry never won a Finals MVP playing James.

Despite Brooks’ protestations, we’ve seen James turn back the clock when necessary this season. He averaged just under 35 points per game during the roughly six weeks Anthony Davis missed in December and January, creating most of his own looks in the process. We even got a glimpse of it at the end of Game 4, when James summoned his younger self for the last property scoring over Defensive Player of the Year Years Jackson Jr. and tie.

Doing that for an asset is one thing. Doing that for a series while you’re injured is something completely different. It’s not clear at this point how much James has left to give the Lakers, but if it’s as little as he had against the Grizzlies, they won’t stand a chance against Golden State. He knows from experience how ruthless the Warriors can be. He may not have dropped a 40 on Brooks, but he will probably need to get close a few times if the Lakers plan to win four of seven against the defending champion.

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