LeBron James’s regular season is over. He came out of the game after the third quarter, with the Cavs up 15 on Atlanta in an eventual 109-94 win, and now that Cleveland has clinched the No. 1 seed in the East, James and the rest of the starters will sit out Wednesday’s finale. It has been a down year for James—it’s all relative, of course—but in the last month he has regained something of that superhuman form that singlehandedly dragged the Cavs to the finals last year. He looks ready to do it again, if need be. Even if he and every Cleveland fan pray he needn’t this time.
The change came in March, after a bad loss to the Heat, when Tyronn Lue privately challenged James to be better. James took it public, declaring he was entering “playoff mode.” And he has been, since then, something he hasn’t been all year: the NBA’s best player.
In his last 10 games James is averaging 28.4 PPG, 8 rebounds, and 8.5 assists. In that stretch his shooting, seemingly on the decline this year, has leapt to 63 percent from the field and 51.8 percent from three. Those last two figures are seismic jumps for a guy who at one point this season was the league’s worst shooter from outside the paint, and whose three-point shot looked like it had deserted him completely.
To his teammates, this is nothing new.
“Zero dark thirty,” Tristan Thompson said of James’ stellar play recently. “It’s about that time. You see it every year. It’s about to go down. Let’s do it.”
James chalks up his late-season surge to a simple change in mindset.
“It’s a mind switch, a mind switch,” James said Monday. “I’ve been going to the gym even more, dialed in more on what needs to be done and what needs to be better. I’ve been in this league a long time and I know what I need to do for my game to be even more sharp, so I’m glad I was able to deliver and not just talk about it.”
This is the big question, though an incomplete one: is it really so simple as flicking a switch?
The optimist’s case is that James has entered the wily veteran phase of his career, where he’s learned that with a team as good as Cleveland in a conference as bad as the East, there’s no sense expending more energy than necessary to get home-court advantage. The regular season is a grind, and the playoffs a sprint, and if you’ve got nothing left in the tank for the postseason nothing else matters. So James, this version goes, took it relatively easy this year—he played the fewest minutes of his career—in preparation for the push for the top seed and the playoffs to follow. And now they’re here, and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are healthy, and if the Cavs win the East like they should, the Finals is just a seven-game series where anything can happen. Especially with a focused, rejuvenated LeBron.
The pessimist says James is in decline. That he’s 31, and 31-year-old physiologically can’t do what 27-year-olds can do. That the legs are the first thing to go, manifesting in James’s jump-shooting problems earlier in the season. That endurance starts to go too, putting into question whether James can play at this level for an entire postseason, especially after doing so for a month beforehand. That the LeBron we saw for the first five months, featuring his worst shooting and scoring numbers since his rookie year, is the real LeBron.
LeBron James is too good, and too adept at adapting his game, to fall off an aging cliff. It’ll be gradual, and he’s got a few years left of being among the best players in the NBA, but he will likely never again be the best. The other question, and which won’t necessarily be answered for a couple years, is whether James is at the tail end of his prime, or at the start of his decline.
These playoffs are not a referendum on where James stands in his career arc. They may well be the answer to the real question: whether he’s still capable of flicking a switch and keeping it on for three months.