LeBron James is a win away from the NBA Finals, and he doesn't have to worry about facing the team that has given him more trouble in the playoffs than any other.
The Warriors defeated James and the Cleveland Cavaliers three times in the Finals, eliminating James' team from the postseason more than any other NBA franchise. By virtue of signing with the Los Angeles Lakers just over two years ago, James ensured he wouldn't face the Warriors in the Finals.
If James' Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets and win Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Saturday night, the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics will want to take a page out of the Warriors' playbook for defending him.
"We gave him small sample sizes," former Warriors guard (and current executive) Shaun Livingston recalled to ESPN's Jackie MacMullan earlier this month. "We'd mix up our coverages and our personnel to keep him guessing. The hope was as the series went on it might wear him down a bit."
With Livingston, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, the Warriors were capable of giving James different looks defensively. Often, Livingston recalled, he or Iguodala would guard James earlier in the shot clock while Green would switch on to him later. Livingston said the Warriors would limit switches to "the last three to five seconds" of the shot clock in order to prevent James from exploiting matchups.
The Warriors limited James' efficiency in the 2015 NBA Finals, even as the four-time NBA MVP posted gaudy numbers -- he was 1.2 assists per game shy of averaging a triple-double -- while shouldering a massive offensive load with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love out injured. That wasn't the case a year later, with James orchestrating a three-games-to-one comeback by averaging 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds and 9.7 assists in the three games his Cavs faced elimination. He also shot 50.4 percent from the field and made 42.1 percent of his 3-pointers.
Signing Kevin Durant in 2016 made the Warriors-Cavaliers rivalry particularly one-sided, and Golden State won eight of nine NBA Finals games against James after Durant joined the team. James averaged a triple-double in the '17 Finals and was close a year later, but he also averaged over 4.5 turnovers per game in those series.
Assuming the Lakers advance to the Finals, the Heat and Celtics both have the defensive ingredients to use the Warriors' recipe. Miami can, conceivably, stick any one of Iguodala (who won 2015 Finals MVP for his work guarding James), Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder or even Bam Adebayo on James, and coach Erik Spolestra surely would throw in some zone, too. Boston also is an elite defensive team, led by All-Defense staple Marcus Smart.
Still, as former Warrior David West told MacMullan, limiting James can only go so far. James averaged no fewer than 29.7 points, 8.5 rebounds or 8.8 assists per game in any of his four Finals tussles with the Warriors. James is four years older than when he first faced Golden State, but he's also four years wiser.
"You can't rattle LeBron," West told MacMullan. "He's seen it all."