With the Los Angeles Lakers facing elimination on Thursday night and Anthony Davis' status for Game 6 against the Phoenix Suns up in the air, all eyes are on LeBron James.
It's not an unfamiliar place for the 36-year-old James - he's been here before with his back against the wall and much higher stakes on the line. But that was at a time where James was younger and healthier than he is now. And we know the old saying, father time is undefeated.
James hasn't looked like himself so far this postseason. Through the first five games of the Lakers' series with the Suns, he's averaging 22.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game - subpar numbers by James' high standards. In fact, it's his lowest playoff scoring and rebounding average in his career. His 4.4 turnovers are the second-most of his playoff career, only second to the 5.0 per game he averaged in his rookie season.
The King hasn't looked the same, which begs the question: Is LeBron James just hurt, or is he finally slowing down?
Let's take a look...
One indicator that James might not be quite right is his free-throw attempts - or lack thereof. James is averaging just 3.4 free throws in the playoffs so far, by far a career-low. To put in perspective of how low that number that is, Dennis Schroder is averaging more free throw attempts in these playoffs than James. No disrespect to Schroder, but that shouldn't be happening.
James' lack of trips to the line has led to the lowest free-throw rate of his career in the playoffs at 0.193, according to Basketball-Reference. When LeBron is at his best, he's usually in attack mode and getting to the line. That hasn't happened enough against the Suns yet.
You can point to James taking a back seat to Anthony Davis' dominance through the first part of the series as a reason why his trips to the line are low. Let's face it, when AD was playing as well as he was before he got hurt, it allowed James the luxury to be a lot less aggressive. But now that Davis is compromised, the Lakers need LeBron to find trips to the stripe and oppose his will on the game if LA plans on moving past the first round.
Another indicator that James might not be himself is his lack of success in the post so far this series. With James' size advantage over Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder - who have been the primary LeBron defenders, according to NBA Stats - you'd think that James would be bullying them on the block. That hasn't been the case at all.
James is posting up on less than 10.0 percent of his possessions so far in the postseason (including the Play-In game) and ranks in the 13th percentile in efficiency. Through the regular season, James posted up on 14.0 percent of his possessions and ranked in the 75th percentile.
With James nursing an ankle injury, it's fair to speculate that if he was fully healthy, he would not only be more efficient on the block, but he'd be more willing to go to the block. Even on a bum ankle, James should be able to overpower Bridges and Crowder but if he can't pivot and use his footwork, one would imagine it might make him easier to contain.
And if James isn't getting to the line or punishing the Suns on the block, it means that he's settling for jumpers - which is exactly the case. James is launching a playoff career-high 7.6 3-pointers per game. That equates to a 3-point attempt rate of 0.432, also a playoff career-high, according to Basketball-Reference. Although James is knocking down 39.5 percent of his 3s so far, the Suns will certainly live with him settling for those long balls instead of putting pressure on their defence and placing them in potential foul trouble. Again, you have to wonder if a healthy James would be more willing to put the ball on the deck and drive, rather than settle for triples.
After watching the tape and seeing how James was able to perform this season, we haven't yet seen the end of the King. It's easy to forget how good James was prior to this ankle injury. The dude was playing at an MVP level.
Even though James is physically on the court, it's clear that he isn't himself. Even taking into account his great performance in Game 3, the ankle has been an issue - and it looks like it will continue to be an issue all postseason long.
The King isn't washed yet... he's definitely hurt, though. Unfortunately for the Lakers, that could mean the end of their championship defence in the very near future.
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