We've never seen this version of LeBron James in the playoffs before

I’ve witnessed LeBron James’ career in its entirety.

I read about him in Slam Magazine. I watched his nationally televised high school games on ESPN. I’ve been there since his very first second on an NBA basketball court. At that time, ball was still life, all decisions revolved around when I could get a good run in. Most nights were spent hooping until our gym closed. The night Bron laced them up for the first time in the league, hooping took a back seat. And not just for me, the courts were empty. We all crowded around a single big screen in the common area on the second level of the gym, watching to see if all the hype was deserved or designed. If the "Chosen One" was indeed chosen or manufactured. If the player who was entering the league with more expectations than any other player before or since had what it took to live up to them.

We saw his first assist. We saw his first bucket. We saw his first dunk. We saw all the promise that existed within LeBron. He wasn’t simply as good as advertised, he was better. We had no idea how much better he was, but we left excited about what was ahead.

Over the years he’s continued to do the unimaginable. Oftentimes taking over in pivotal moments, dragging his teammates to places they had no business being. For almost an entire decade, having Bron on your team meant you were going to the Finals, regardless of the talent. If there were a way he would find it, and with him, there was always a way. Because there was always the button. The button he could press when in dire need. The button that took him to a place where no one else on the court could go. The button that only the greatest of the great have.

 LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks down after a turnover against the Phoenix Suns in the first half of game six of the Western Conference First Round NBA Playoff basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, July 4, 2021. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Eighteen seasons in the NBA. More minutes than any player since the creation of the game. And I’ve been there for all of it. I was there when he buckled under the pressure in the 2011 Finals against a lesser-talented Dallas Mavericks team. And I’ve seen him overcome the impossible against one of the best teams of all time in the Golden State Warriors, contributing statistically in ways only Bron could, leading both teams in every major category. But I’ve never seen the Bron I saw in this Phoenix series.

He never looked like himself. He was picking his spots very carefully. Settling for more jumpers than usual, shooting more threes than any series prior. Avoiding attacking the rim particularly when there was traffic in the lane. When he did choose to attack, he had trouble turning the corner, and the lift wasn’t quite there like it was in years past.

In Games 2 and 3 before things fell apart — before Anthony Davis’ groin injury — you could tell he was leaning on his teammates more than usual. Pulling Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the side at one point making sure that KCP knew he was needed. Unlike other greats, Bron has never approached the game singularly. He never convinced himself that he could reach the heights he has alone. He’s made sure to get his team involved, knowing that he could get his when necessary. Because he could always press the button. But the button wasn’t there this series.

LeBron was hurt. He never truly trusted the injured ankle that cost him virtually all of the second half of the season. But we can’t ignore his age, 36, an age that was once something that made him seem superhuman but is now starting to make people wonder if we’ll ever see the Bron we saw before.

Who knows?

What we do know is he just came off the shortest offseason of his career and that he’ll have a long offseason to heal, after being eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for the first time in his career. We also know that if there’s a way for Bron to get back to being himself, he’ll find it. And there’s always a way with Bron.

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