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LeBron James says 2020 NBA playoffs will be ‘toughest championship run for me’

Lakers star LeBron James looks to pass under pressure.
Lakers star LeBron James looks to pass under pressure from Portland’s Mario Hezonja, center, and CJ McCollum, right, during a game in January.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

LeBron James smiled slightly at a question about the Portland Trail Blazers’ momentum coming into their first-round series with the Lakers.

James wasn’t amused at the query. He was just being distracted by teammate Anthony Davis standing directly in front of him, peering over the video screen James was facing.

“I’m not smiling at your question. Anthony is behind [it],” James explained, before answering. “When he does silly stuff I call him Anthony.”

Davis poked his head around the side, looking expectantly at James, who said he’d meet him in the meal room. Davis walked off as James’ demeanor turned solemn again.

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He agreed with the premise of the question, about how much Portland has been tested in rallying to reach the playoffs. He said he welcomed the challenge. But in this playoff run, he really has no idea what to expect.

“It’s probably going to be one of — probably the toughest one,” James said. “It’s the toughest championship run for me personally. From the circumstances of just being in here.”

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When the Lakers play Portland on Tuesday night in Orlando, they will be returning to the playoffs after an unprecedented six-year stretch in which the organization watched the postseason from home. They signed James in the summer of 2018 to change that. He came to Los Angeles to win the franchise’s 17th championship. Davis joined him this year to strengthen that quest. James is embarking on his 14th playoff campaign, in search of his fourth championship.

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“His attentiveness in the film room, as well as what we’re trying to get accomplished in practice — it’s a big reason why we’re able to have success,” Coach Frank Vogel said, adding, “And it’s certainly been heightened as we’ve been able to dive into a single opponent the last few days, both in the film sessions and on the court.”

Before joining the Lakers, James had been to the playoffs in 13 consecutive seasons with eight straight appearances in the NBA Finals. Last season he suffered a groin injury on Christmas that kept him out for five weeks and severely hampered the Lakers’ playoff hopes. They weren’t expected to win a championship last season, but most people thought the playoff drought would end.

During his media session Monday, James balked at the suggestion that it had been a “long time” since he had been to the playoffs.

“It’s not that long,” he said.

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The question then pivoted to whether James took for granted being in the postseason.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” James said. “I live life, every day I maximize that day. I don’t take anything for granted. Because at the end of the day, I know where I come from, I know what I stand for, so I don’t take anything for granted, especially being in my 17th season. I don’t go into any season saying, ‘OK, playoffs, playoffs, championship, championship.’ I just am all about the process.”

As promised, as soon as he found out the Trail Blazers were his opponent, James began to narrow his focus. He echoed what Vogel has said in recent days, calling the Trail Blazers an unusual eighth-seeded team.

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“I don’t think they would have been the eighth seed if they were healthy all year,” James said. “And that’s my mindset. I’m not going in as a one seed versus an eight seed, I’m going in with it’s the Lakers versus Portland. So, I’ve already thrown that out of the window so I won’t be going in with my guard down.”

Portland entered the NBA’s bubble tied for ninth in the West, 3½ games back of Memphis. The Trail Blazers played what coach Terry Stotts described as a nine-game playoff series, with the final the play-in game that eliminated the Grizzlies.

It’s part of what makes this postseason so unprecedented. Amid the pandemic, the NBA shut down operations in March at a time when the Lakers were developing a rhythm and preparing for the playoffs. The break halted their momentum and they haven’t recaptured it yet.

After securing the top seed in the West, the Lakers focused on keeping their players healthy while getting them enough court time to get into a rhythm. And the comforts of home are nowhere to be found.

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“As far as me locking in on an opponent and individuals, that hasn’t changed,” James said. “What’s different is this is the environment, not home. Not with my family, not in my own bed, I’m not in our own practice facility. I’m not preparing to be at Staples [Center] tomorrow with our fans. I’m not with a lot of things that’s essential to my everyday regimen. So that’s what’s different. As far as mentally, that’s always going to be sharp.”


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