Fifteen years on, you could hardly be blamed for being desensitized to LeBron James. You and me and everyone else that plays with real and fake MVP votes at the end of every NBA season know how boring monotony can get, and so we stitch together some selective, season-specific argument sort-of-proving that LeBron was not the Most Valuable Player in the NBA, by some understanding of Value. These aren’t good arguments and it’s honestly kind of a lot of work, but it’s what needs to be done if we’re not just going to toss the MVP to LeBron every year.
The playoffs present a perfect opportunity to completely unburden ourselves of these illusions. We can opt out on embracing debate and binge on the thing itself. So: bring on the Playoff Larbon. Bring on the chasedowns, the out-of-range stepbacks, the melodramatic mean-mugging. Let him feast. Hook it to my veins.
The East is, nominally, less of cakewalk this year than in seasons past. The Sixers weathered the brutal scheduling of the first half of the season and spent the second steamrolling through the league’s worst teams and beating some good ones too. They have emerged as a true terror, with Joel Embiid or without him. The Raptors, a late-season swoon notwithstanding, boast an outrageously deep rotation and seem like they might actually be real for once, which is a sentence I will regret writing immediately upon completion. The Bucks are unfinished and imperfect but Giannis will hopefully take some long-ass strides deeper into the postseason in his first trip as an actual god. Victor Oladipo lifted a Pacers squad with ant-high expectations all the way to the fifth seed. I’m fully prepared and excited for LeBron to squish his kindly face in over the course of let’s say five games.
The languishing-on-defense, hands-on-hips, passively fuming regular season LeBron is going back into a box, and will not return until December. He has put his phone away; Instagram and pettiness, two of his favorite hobbies, are on pause for the time being. What’s left is the good shit, and over the next several weeks we will be treated to the titan who just callously crushes human spirits for 42 minutes a night. There are few spectacles as satisfying in their crushing totality as apex Playoff LeBron in all of sports, and it is a blessing to have it finally upon us.
You need only look back to last Wednesday for a whiff of what this looks like. Regular Season LeBron saw his team at an enormous deficit and, whether out of irritation or boredom or the urge to show a red-band trailer of what’s coming later this month, briefly morphed into Playoff LeBron. He strangled the Wizards out with his bare hands, and every possession felt like an inevitability. He controlled the game—orchestrated it to the point of wringing the life out of it—in all the ways he can: scoring from deep when given the space, driving at and spinning off your lifeless corpse if not, slinging perfect entry passes and kicking out to shooters suddenly rendered open by his slightest movement. You saw it all in those last seven minutes.
Against the Sixers two days later, Regular Season LeBron napped through the first half as the disastrous Cavs defense got lit up for a 30-point deficit. Playoff LeBron showed up in the second half and finished with a 44/11/11 line after dragging his team to within a bucket of winning. He wasn’t all there for all 48 minutes, but Playoff LeBron was, at least for a little while, clearly in the building. (Forgive me if I gloss past those last two games against the Knicks, which were so much a waste of his time as to be almost a league-scheduled extension of his pre-playoffs rest. I figure he only checked into the second one to walk around a bit, score 10 points, and notch the first 82-game season of his career.)
When the postseason comes, the difference in James is palpable for spectator and defenders and opposing coaches and anyone else with eyeballs. Scott Davis of Business Insider wrote an enjoyable story about how LeBron “flips the switch” for the playoffs. In it he quotes a league source as saying:
It’s an amazingly simple formula. The NBA works on the notion of advanced scouting. You’re gonna take film of that team, and you’re going to watch them and say, ‘This is what they do on offense, this is what they do on defense.’ ... And not one thing that you’ve seen on that film is going to translate to the physical experience of LeBron at full throttle. And people don’t know what to do when they see it.
As a person, at least, I do know what to do when I see it. I hoot and holler, slap my legs and sofa cushions and loved ones, laugh aloud at the absurdity of what a person is doing on my television screen. I can’t fucking wait.