As the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns gear up for a pivotal Game 5 on Tuesday, with the series tied 2-2 and Anthony Davis likely out, let's at least try to be reasonable about the narratives. No, this is not the most important game of LeBron James' career, as some would have you believe. I mean good grief. The guy played in an NBA Finals Game 7 on the road against a 73-win team to end a 52 year title drought.
This is a first-round series.
In a shortened season.
In Year 18 of LeBron's career.
If you think this game, no matter how it turns out, will have even the smallest impact on LeBron's legacy, seek therapy. LeBron could turn into the worst player in the league tomorrow, and his place within the pantheon of the greatest players ever wouldn't budge an inch.
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I suppose there's something of a house-money opportunity here. It's one more chance to blow everyone's mind with one of his vintage, everyone-step-aside-and-watch-me-save-the-day games. And, boy, do the Lakers need that kind of performance. They are, as mentioned, likely to be without Davis (strained groin) and possibly Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who's day-to-day with a knee contusion. That's the Lakers' second- and third-best players.
Meanwhile, Chris Paul is getting healthier by the day for Phoenix. In the Suns' Game 4 win, Paul looked as close to his normal self as he has since he suffered what was deemed a shoulder contusion early in Game 1. Whatever it was, or is, it's had Paul playing with basically one arm, making things decidedly easier on the Lakers.
Now it gets really difficult for James, who, to this point, is averaging just 21.8 points per game in this series, the second-lowest scoring mark in any playoff series for his entire career, besting only the 17.8 PPG he put up in the 2011 Finals when the Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks. (That showing is still almost impossible to believe).
This is also the first playoff series in which James has shot under 50 percent from the field since the 2016 Finals. His shooting splits vs. Phoenix are 49-32-58. Yes, that's 58 percent from the free-throw line. That has to clean up, as do James' turnovers, which are happening a career-high rate so far in this series.
The 32 percent from 3 is more troubling when you consider over 40 percent of LeBron's shots in this series have come from behind the arc, which is by far the highest dependence he's placed on 3-pointers in his postseason career. In the bubble, he took 31 percent of his postseason shots from 3, and in no season before that has he ever taken more than 27 percent of his postseason shots from 3.
Call it age, passivity, deference, a little bit of all three, but so far we have not seen a lot of the LeBron James who can bulldoze his way to the rim pretty much at will. He's still doing it. Just not as consistently. So far, 39 percent of his shots in this series have come at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass, down from 49 percent in last year's postseason. LeBron has been willing to stand aside and let Dennis Schroder create a good chunk of the half-court offense.
Don't read too much into those individual numbers. The Lakers are still plus-37 in his 151 minutes so far in this series, and minus-33 in the 41 minutes he's sat out. Even if you forget everything you just read, pay attention to that. Game 5 could be decided in the few minutes LeBron rests. He might have to play somewhere north of 42 minutes.
"These shoulders were built for a reason," LeBron told reporters after the Game 4 loss. "If it takes me putting some more on top of them, so be it. Win, lose or draw, I'm ready for the challenge."
In the past, that certainly would not have been good news for the Suns. LeBron, contrary to the utterly stupid narrative that he somehow lacks the clutch gene, has long had a penchant for huge games in huge moments. This isn't to say he's still not that player. It's just to say he hasn't been that player so far in this series. Assuming he still has it in him, now is the time the Lakers desperately need him to let it out.