Rebounding is hustle. It’s positioning and effort and the sort of physical labor anyone built like LeBron could always make look easy if it weren’t for his need to focus everywhere else. That extra rest isn’t the sole reason why he’s never had a greater impact on the boards—which ignited countless fastbreak opportunities for L.A.—but it probably isn’t a coincidence.
Unrelated but even more impressive: In these playoffs, LeBron was a more efficient scorer driving to the basket than anybody else in the last seven seasons. Going back to 2014—when shot-tracking data first became available—no player had ever shot over 65 percent on at least 10 drives per game during the regular season or the playoffs. Then LeBron shot 68% on 12 drives per game in the bubble. Ripping through the guts of any postseason-caliber defense over and over again in a seven-game series is a relentless uphill climb and one of the toughest things a player can do. Doing it as often as LeBron did, with the burst and poise he consistently exhibited, was next level for anyone, let alone someone in his 17th season.
(For more context, during the regular season Antetokounmpo averaged 10.5 drives per game and made 59.8 percent on field goal attempts that came from them. Think about all those ferocious stomps through the paint and how unstoppable the 25-year-old looked all year long. Well, LeBron was almost 10 percent higher…in the playoffs! Also: 22-year-old Jayson Tatum took about as many shots on drives in this postseason and his field goal percentage on them was 20 percent lower than LeBron’s. This stuff just isn’t supposed to happen.)
On one hand, James feasted on the small-ball Rockets and a Heat team that didn’t have any healthy rim protectors after Bam Adebayo went down in Game 1. But 1) LeBron’s greatest success with drives actually came in the conference finals against the jumbo-sized Denver Nuggets, and 2) he made all this happen without the type of spacers he’s accustomed to. James embraced the league’s general proclivity for “3’s or layups” more than he ever has before, bull rushing the basket when he might otherwise have settled for a mid-range jumper.
Beyond the extra few minutes of rest every game, there’s a decent chance LeBron benefited from the four-month midseason break, lack of travel, and other bubble-related edges that worked in his favor—up to and including key players on rival teams succumbing to quarantine-related exhaustion. On defense, he spent more time guarding Jeremi Grant, Carmelo Anthony, and Robert Covington than Kawhi Leonard, Giannis, or Jayson Tatum. (LeBron did not log a single second-half minute in this postseason with four or more fouls for the first time in a decade.) Jimmy Butler made James work, and when that assignment grew too daunting it became Davis’ responsibility.
But LeBron’s skill-set is still a cornucopia of selfless decision-making, savage might, and seven-chess-moves-ahead adaptability. For now, he’s the singer and songwriter on an NBA champion that survived one of the most arduous and mentally taxing stretches of basketball the league has ever seen. And as the Lakers prepare to defend their crown, managing the King’s minutes so he can look like he’s 26 instead of 36 will be the most important and necessary issue they’ll need to deal with.