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LeBron James treating NBA restart as just another challenge to overcome

LeBron James speaks to reporters at Lakers media availability at the NBA's central Florida campus 3:33
LeBron James says that despite the different challenges and obstacles faced this season, his mentality has not changed

LeBron James keeps hearing the same questions. How's it going? How's the bubble? He now has a one-size-fits-all answer.

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"I just say it's 2020," the four-time MVP said. "Nothing is normal in 2020."

That's not entirely true. The NBA is a few weeks from playoff mode, and James - just like normal - has himself and the Los Angeles Lakers squarely in the mix to compete for championship. It is a rare bit of normality for a player who appeared in eight consecutive NBA Finals from 2011 through and including 2018, and for a franchise that has won 16 championships.

LeBron James performs lunges at a Lakers practice in Orlando 4:57
LeBron James says 'nothing is normal in 2020', as he and his Los Angeles Lakers team continued their preparations ahead of the resumption of the NBA

Everything else about this year has been most abnormal. A pandemic suspended play. David Stern, the NBA's commissioner emeritus, died. Kobe Bryant, who was the third-leading scorer in NBA history until James passed him on January 25, died in a helicopter crash the following day.

And now James, the Lakers and 21 other teams are at Walt Disney World, separated from the rest of the world, trying to salvage a season and decide a champion.

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James took Bryant's death - the Lakers' star died along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others on the morning of January 26 - particularly hard.

"A day doesn't go by when I don't think about him," James said. "A day doesn't go by where our organisation does not remember him and think about not only Kobe, but Gigi, (his wife) Vanessa and their girls. They are a part of this family."

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Lakers coach Frank Vogel has seen playoff-season James three times before, never liking how those experiences went. Vogel was coaching Indiana and his three best seasons there saw the Pacers matched up with James and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Heat won in six games in 2012. And in seven games in 2013. Then in six games in 2014.

This time, Vogel is genuinely and understandably eager to see James at playoff time.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis enjoy a break at Lakers practice in Orlando
Image: LeBron James and Anthony Davis enjoy a break at Lakers practice in Orlando

"Obviously, it's been great having LeBron on our side after years of going against him," Vogel said. "But in particular, when we get to the playoff environment, I've just seen how he is this year in some of the bigger regular season games, how he is more mentally locked in, more vocal, more making sure everybody else is locked in. And I anticipate that come playoff time, we'll see that all being done at an enhanced level."

James will have a big say in whether the Lakers win that title. By the time the season resumes July 30, the ballots will be cast to determine whether he or Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo - the two frontrunners - wins the NBA MVP award.

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James is mathematically assured of winning his first assist title; he cannot be caught by second-place Trae Young of Atlanta no matter what happens at Disney. And the Lakers, barring all-out collapse, will be the No 1 seed in the Western Conference.

By any measure, it's been a good year on the court for James.

Rajon Rondo and Lebron James 6:16
The Heatcheck team discuss whether Rajon Rondo's absence due to a broken thumb, will put a lot of pressure on Lebron James in the NBA play-offs

A weird year, but a good year. Time will tell if it's a great year. He believes the bubble will work and sees no reason yet why this NBA experiment would fail. And while he detests being away from his family and his inner circle, he is using this chance to be locked in to focus on the opportunity.

"As far as the MVP race, I think I've shown what I'm capable of doing, not only individually but from a team's perspective, us being No 1 in the West," James said. "There was a lot of conversation about, you know, 'LeBron can do those things in the East but if he ever came to the West, what can he do?'

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"I heard all of that, and to have our team at the top of the Western Conference and playing the way that we were playing at that time and the way I was playing, you know, that's definitely a good feeling."

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