LeBron James will need a throwback series to defeat the champions in the Lakers-Warriors matchup because he appeared frail and injured in Round 1.

James isn’t the same player he once was, but in order to defeat Golden State, he’ll need to conjure together another classic series.

LeBron James will be regarded as having prevailed over Dillon Brooks in their verbal battle. It would be difficult for him to avoid thinking about how the series finished. In the decisive Game 6 matchup, the Los Angeles Lakers destroyed the Memphis Grizzlies by a score of 40 points. Brooks got half as many ejections (1) as wins (2) and nearly as many fouls (20) as field goals (24). Even though Brooks is currently being humiliated, he was still in the wrong. Certainly not completely.

Despite the fact that he arguably shouldn’t have prodded the bear and that he now appears dumb for wanting to play the Lakers, who had just defeated him, Brooks urged James to “come and give me 40.” Of course, James, 38, didn’t have to, but it’s also not as if he came really close. In his final game against the Grizzlies, James scored a career-high 28 points, a respectable total for a mortal but far from his own ludicrous bar.

He failed to reach 29 points in a playoff series for just the sixth time in his career. In 51 of them, he participated. The remaining victories included his greatest losses (the 2007 and 2011 Finals) and biggest routs (two 2016 sweeps and a five-game triumph against Chicago in 2013 in which Miami’s average margin of victory was over 18 points).

If you looked a little closer, you might say James had won the worst playoff series ever. Only the 2007 and 2011 Finals had lower averages during his playoff career than his 22.2 points per game average. He had the fewest assists in a playoff series since the 2014 Finals with only 5.1 per game on average versus Memphis. Until his victory over the Grizzlies, he hadn’t won a playoff series while attempting fewer than 50% of his shots from the field. With James sitting the bench against Memphis, the Lakers recorded a plus-14 net rating. The team’s highest number was that.

The raw data ought to decline to the mean. James had 11.4 assists available each game versus the Grizzlies, but his teammates just missed the shots he helped to create. In those six games, James made 19.5% of his 3-point attempts. His scoring average increases to little around 25 when you bring him up to his lifetime average of 34.5%. No matter what, LeBron will achieve his goals. The Lakers should be worried about how they’re approaching right now.

According to Synergy Sports, James scored 16 points against the Grizzlies on putbacks, which is equal to how many points he scored individually. He used the pick-and-roll so infrequently against Memphis that he only managed to score 10 points in total from it, and to make matters worst, he did so with abhorrent efficiency, scoring just 0.588 points per possession. LeBron James failed to make his own shots for what may have been the first time in his career.

When compared to James’ previous playoff matchup with the Golden State Warriors, a significant difference can be seen. The shot-creation statistics are essentially what separate the best player in history from a sixth man with a quick draw.

2018 PLAYOFFS LEBRON 2023 PLAYOFFS LEBRON
Isolation field goal attempts per game 8.3 2.3
Pick-and-roll field goal attempts game 5.5 2.2
Possessions ending in a James pick-and-roll per game 14.7 7

The lone warrior who entered Oracle Arena five years ago and came away with 51 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists almost defeated the Warriors alone? He might be permanently lost. James currently discovers most of his photographs rather than creating them.

James scored 34 of his first-round points (out of his 133) in transition. As strange as it may seem for an older player to be jogging more than ever, James has been doing this for several years. Between 2005 and 2021, he attempted 3.3 field goals on average per game, never going higher or lower than 3.7. But he shot in transition at a career-high rate of 4.6 shots per game last year, and he increased that to 4.9 this year.

That change was influenced by outside factors. Since the league is now faster than it was when he was at his best and Russell Westbrook clogging the paint, the Lakers needed to take advantage of any easy points they could get on the break. But James also did. At the height of his abilities, he made over 13 drives per game on average. He was scoring 9.5 points a game in 2021 even before Westbrook joined the team. He pushed the pace whenever possible since transition was a surefire way to make up for the points aging was robbing him of in the half-court.

His greater reliance on spot-up shots has been a more predictable effect of aging. This season, he took a career-high 2.5 of them per game, more than double his previous Cleveland season’s total. Even before his 8-of-41 3-point shooting disaster against the Grizzlies, he was having trouble making them. This season, James shot 32.1% from beyond the arc, his lowest percentage as a Laker, and it would be unfair not to blame at least some of those struggles on his ongoing foot and ankle problems.

This season, James has a habit of missing short shots, and one of his go-to shots, the ultra-deep bomb, has all but abandoned him. James understates the significance of those looks by shooting 35.2% on 3-pointers from at least 27 feet away from the rim over the five seasons prior to this one. They are crowd-pleasing backbreakers who annihilate rivals. They’re a common way for James to end successful stretches, but they’re also a crucial weapon for space. James makes the opponents guard such shots by taking them and making them. Even when James is older, he can still drive dangerously given 27 feet of runway. He tried 113 more this season than he did in his four seasons with the Heat put together, but he only converted 24.8% of those attempts.

He has worked to perfect the technique of cutting in an effort to make up for that shooting slump. He was seventh in the NBA for cut efficiency this season with just under 1.8 points scored on per shot attempt. The younger James absorbed those ideas as they were offered. He held the ball so much that he regularly used possessions to relax when he wasn’t in possession of it. By observing his defender’s eyes, the elder version searches for certain expressions. When the ball handler has an angle and he turns his back, the player sprints toward the hoop. There isn’t much a defense can do to stop him once he commits to a slot cut.

These changes demonstrate how much James has modified his style to deal with aging, but they are all intended to support what James does with the ball. All of this is meaningless if James is unable to defeat Xavier Tillman alone. The Lakers will lose at Golden State if his damaged foot inhibits his creative expression to the same extent that it did against Memphis.

High-level playoff basketball is like that. Paces become sluggish. Defenses analyze your off-the-ball behavior and devise a strategy to counter it. Small skill gaps develop into glaring flaws. Two-time Warriors champion Kevin Durant stated as much in 2019. “We can only fully rely on our method for the first two rounds, maybe. Then we’ll have to mix in individual play for the following two rounds, Durant told The Wall Street Journal. We must confuse teams because they are more intelligent in that playoff stage. In order to create things on my own, off the dribble, isos, and pick-and-rolls, I suddenly had to go deep into my bag rather than relying on the offense to generate my points.

Right now, the Warriors have a somebody who can produce in that manner. Golden State was been forced into the second round by Stephen Curry thanks to the first-ever 50-point Game 7. Ironically, any team could once stop James’ offense with the strongest defense possible. In the Finals, LeBron regularly switch-hunted Curry in an effort to create easy mismatches and wear him out so he couldn’t score as efficiently. Curry never earned a Finals MVP award while playing against James, and this is no accident.

Despite Brooks’ objections, James has demonstrated this season that he can go backwards when necessary. During the roughly six weeks that Anthony Davis was out in December and January, he scored just under 35 points per game on average while generating the majority of his own looks. Even at the very end of Game 4, when James called upon his younger self to score over Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. and tie the game, we got a glimpse of it.

It’s one thing to do it for a possession. It’s quite another to continue doing it when injured for a series. The Lakers won’t have much of a chance against Golden State if James has as little to give them as he did against the Grizzlies, which is unknown at this time. He has firsthand knowledge of the Warriors’ lack of mercy. If the Lakers want to defeat the reigning champions in four out of seven games, he will likely need to come close to dropping 40 on Brooks a few times.