This will be LeBron James’s ninth Finals in the last 10 years, with three franchises and four head coaches. And he’s still at the center of it all.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Denver Nuggets needed three straight wins, but LeBron James needed three days off, and one lesson of the NBA’s last decade is that LeBron usually gets what he wants. Now he gets to go to his 10th NBA Finals, and the amazing part of that is … all of it.
His 10th NBA Finals. Magic Johnson played in nine. Kobe Bryant played in seven. Michael Jordan played in six. Tom Brady has played in nine Super Bowls, which is absurd, but he did it all with one franchise and one coach. This will be James’s ninth Finals in the last 10 years, with three franchises and four head coaches, an astounding feat: Every few years, he joins a new team and almost instantly makes it great.
James finished the Lakers’ Game 5 win over the Nuggets with 38 points on 25 shots, 16 rebounds, 10 assists – what some players would call a career night, and what James calls a night. Sometimes James makes the game look easy, like that moment in Saturday’s clincher over the Nuggets when he got fouled, turned to Nikola Jokic mid-air and said, “and one,” and then finished his layup. It was like watching a pianist eat a turkey sandwich without missing a note. But there are an increasing number of moments when the game seems hard for him, and that is what stands out about his play now: In his seventeenth season, he still finds a way.
His 10th NBA Finals. The Nuggets joined the NBA in 1976 and have never made the NBA Finals. Their ceiling is his floor. As Denver coach Michael Malone pointed out afterward: “This is the second time our franchise has made it to the Western Conference Finals. We’re playing against a guy, this is routine for him.”
His … 10th … NBA … Finals.
“It is incredible,” Malone said. “And when you just step back and look and marvel at what LeBron is doing at this stage of his career, how he continues to find ways to improve and get better and take whatever team he’s on to new heights, that defines his greatness. Tenth Finals appearance … I know everybody wants to get caught up in the whole argument (about) the greatest of all time. That is an unwinnable debate … in a Game 5, closeout game, when the game was hanging in the balance, who took over? The best player on the floor. And that’s what you’ve come to expect from him.”
James has been the best player in the world for so long that it has rarely been worth debating. But he will turn 36 in three months, and two points should be made here. One is that dominating at that age is extremely unusual. Consider: Nuggets forward Paul Millsap has had a heck of a career. He used to be an All-Star. But he looked absolutely cooked in this series. He didn’t have the lift to score against the Lakers’ big guys, he doesn’t move like he once did, and it affected every aspect of his game. He shot 28.8 percent in the series. Well, that’s what you would expect from a player of his age … but Millsap is actually two months younger than James.
The other point is that even James feels the effects of aging. He has to conserve energy more – he played the fewest minutes of his career this year, and Lakers coach Frank Vogel usually gives him a fourth-quarter respite so he can be fresh at the end. James can’t dominate every night on athleticism and skill like he once did. There were nights this year – Game 2 of this series was one – when James was off, in ways he would not have been off a few years ago.
The most interesting part of a great athlete’s career is when he or she has started to decline physically but can make up for it with skill, experience and smarts. James has entered that phase. The decline is small; on some nights, like Game 5, it is imperceptible. But he is almost 36 and he can’t hide it. He took a couple shots to the head in this series. He has to worry more about his shots being blocked and redirected. Still, he finds ways to make them go in.
I covered the last few months of Michael Jordan’s Bulls career, when he was 35 … well, “covered” isn’t the right word. I was the Chicago Tribune’s 47th-string writer during that playoff run, writing about important topics like Phil Jackson’s mustache and Jud Buechler’s dentist’s florist. What I remember is that Jordan was clearly not the same player he had been. He could not have won the NBA dunk contest that year. He had a whole new set of go-to moves at 35 than he had at 25. But he was still the best player in the world.
Like Jordan at 35, James can still control a game with his will and with his mind–nobody in the league sees the floor and processes information better than he does. But James has retained more of his athleticism at this age than Jordan did. And with his massive frame in today’s faster-paced game, he finds just enough space to barrel toward the basket a dozen times a game, and he is pretty much unstoppable when he does. On two of the biggest plays Saturday, he pulled up for a delicate shot in traffic from close range, and he drove left and pulled up for a baseline floater.
James paces himself just enough so that he doesn’t look like he is pacing himself. Watch his teammate Anthony Davis now, a future Hall of Famer and physical freak in his prime, and it’s easy to think that Davis should have a larger impact on the game, but on most nights he doesn’t. Malone had to call more momentum timeouts in Games 4 and 5 than in the previous three games, and most of them were because James left him no choice.
James sat down to talk to the media after Game 5 and requested a cushion for his lower back. He then answered every question thoughtfully – nobody in sports has handled his daily media obligations better in the last decade – but quietly. He looked tired. He should be tired. A good tired. When he spoke of Davis, he referred to “a very, very, very long time ago when I was 27.” Every playoff run is harder than the last now.
James also said, “In a closeout game for me personally, I’m just as desperate as the team we’re trying to close out. I don’t want to play another game.” He said that has always been his approach, but it’s imperative now, because every extra game wears on a 35-year-old body. It was obvious after Game 4 that the Nuggets would not quit, and they didn’t. But this series, like dozens of others in the last 16 years, came down to a pretty simple fact: One team had LeBron James, and the other didn’t.
The Lakers are four wins from James’s fourth title. He will need to beat either his old nemesis, the Boston Celtics, or his old team, the Miami Heat. The Celtics have more firepower. The Heat, with defensive stalwarts Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, would probably provide the tougher matchup. But when James plays like this, that stuff doesn’t really matter.
Davis said that as the Nuggets made their comeback in the third and fourth quarter, James had a message for his teammates: “He told us it was his time.” It is his time. It is still his time. Seventeen years in, and it is still .. still … still his time.