For as little consistency as there can be in life, there's less in the NBA playoffs. Look no farther than current contention. The Knicks are up 3-1 in a series (any series!), the Miami Heat have dug into the number one seed, the Milwaukee Bucks, for three games, and the Lakers, a team that started the season 2-10, are ready to similarly dispatch the Grizzlies, a group that’s never lacked winning momentum all season. The reason for the latter collapse has been two-fold: the Grizzlies’ relative greenness, and LeBron James picking that inexperience apart.
If you’ve rooted for a team that happened to come up in the playoffs against one of the three James played for in the past 19 years, you’re familiar with the psychic menace one man can cause an entire franchise and by extension, its fanbase. Years where first-round elimination felt like a mercy because the alternative was scraping through several rounds only to be deftly swept as soon as James showed up. Where it didn’t matter the game plan, the experience, the meticulous adjustments a team underwent since their last meeting with him, James would show up and singularly dismantle them with all the effort of someone flipping burgers at a backyard BBQ, sipping a casual beer to match.
You’d be forgiven if you assumed the singular scourge of James was over. Looking at how the Lakers regular season went, even how the team entered the playoffs — pushing for a play-in spot with the collapse of most of the Western Conference to thank — it was not unjustified to wonder whether we’d seen the end of postseason James. The Lakers finished 11th last season and fell out after the first round in 2020-2021, both seasons that saw James, for the first time, out for stretches due to injury. It wasn’t a question as to whether James was becoming fallible (he is a person, lest we forget), but whether after nearly two decades in the league his professional challenges and age might be aligning.
Not so. At least not for Memphis, who the comfort of James returning to a cold-calculating postseason form may have been lost on, but not so for the rest of us.
To watch James work is a wonder. Not “still” a wonder, because James’ abilities are rooted in the present, his penchant for finding new ways to astound and improve — like recording his first 20 rebound game against the Grizzlies — they are happening under the bright lights and baited-breath of the present. The stark reality of which could be seen dawning on the Grizzlies’ faces as James, with six seconds left, waited Xavier Tlllman out for two of them and spent the last four driving down the middle of the paint, blowing by Tillman and a too-late Jaren Jackson Jr., to make an easy layup and force the game into overtime. By the end of those next five minutes the Lakers were up three on Memphis and the ball was in James’ hands, way out in the middle of the floor with 35 seconds to go.
Do you know how long 35 seconds is in a playoff game? A lifetime. Do you know how long it is for James in a playoff game? The lifespan of a collapsing star. Fitting then, for Dillon Brooks, who has poked and prodded and smugly dared James to bring a matchup worth his time all series, to pick up James at half court. In the next few seconds, which James draws out like an elaborate game of cat’s cradle, it’s impossible to glimpse what could’ve passed between the two because the camera angle is for the game and not its faces. Someone might have asked Brooks about it postgame, but he declined availability. Still, body language says a lot.
With one foot planted in front, James leans forward in a stance equal parts solid and primed, a hybrid between a sprinter and a Greco-Roman wrestler. The ball, out of sight, is drawn back at James’ hip and he holds it there, his body subtly swaying as Brooks, feinting twice to reach in, grows increasingly unsteady on his feet by the half second. When James launches he is more or less the boulder getting loose as Brooks is made into Sisyphus, chasing and trailing farther with every step and watching as all his work inverts to become his downfall, and that downfall easily lifts to make the shot, get the call, and win the game.
James finished the match with 22 points, 20 rebounds, and seven assists in a performance that was equal parts novel and familiar. Unless you’re on the Grizzlies roster or a fan of it, that familiarity is a comfort. James’ ability to zero in on a franchise’s insecurities and patiently, expertly, with a skillset equal parts power as it is terrifyingly nimble, dissect it into defeats ranging from grueling to impending existential crisis is one of the game’s only sure things. Its rudest gravity. Even if in the last few seasons we’ve learned that with James, the NBA’s perpetual seeming north star, long-held constants can and will change, though it has more to do with the hard and fast rules of time than basketball.
To have James playing, winning, outwitting and out-maneuvering opponents in this, his 16th postseason (he’s been in so many that he can no longer keep track of which move he used to win in which series), is to get to taunt time, at least a little.