CLEVELAND — In a year that has included team meetings, midseason trades and an ailing head coach, LeBron James has spurned rest and instead suited up for every regular-season game. He's on track to play all 82 games for the first time in his career, and he's doing it at a level that has garnered plenty of MVP discussion.
If he is willing to deviate from the plans of seasons past, would he be willing to deviate from his standard postseason routine of unplugging from social media?
No chance, said The King in advance of the Cavs' final regular-season game against the New York Knicks.
"My focus hasn't changed," James told Bleacher Report of this year's upcoming hiatus. "[The current social media climate] doesn't matter to me. We all know how this season has been. With our ballclub and all the noise that's either irrelevant or relevant—whatever the case may be—for me, maintaining my focus hasn't changed."
In film circles, Zero Dark Thirty is an award-winning film that dramatized the decadelong hunt for Osama bin Laden. In NBA circles, a slightly altered term carries an entirely different meaning.
"Zero Dark Thirty-23" is code for LeBron James' annual disengagement from his social media channels. James typically brings notice to this dark period by posting an image that serves as his final moment of connectivity to the social media world. It can be a simple as a tweet and a hashtag, or an elaborate artistic rendering of James melded with a lion's head. It becomes the subject of television segments and is even the name of a new sneaker.
When it comes to the playoffs, James' self-imposed social media blackout is as much about tradition as it is leading a team to the NBA Finals.
But what about this season?
With James' growing embrace of his platform outside basketball, his social media usage has garnered plenty of headlines this season. He's used it like a civilian, like when he tweeted about a movie he's looking forward to watching with his wife. He's used it to promote a civil rights documentary that he produced. And he's used it to call the president of the United States a "bum."
On Twitter, James' number of followers has ballooned to 41.3 million—the second-most among athletes, trailing only Cristiano Ronaldo. On Instagram, James is followed by 36.4 million users, placing him among the top 40 profiles on the photo-sharing application. With so many people tracking his social media use, it's easy to see how getting away from it all can actually bring more attention.
James, who didn't use social media publicly until 2010, started his postseason blackouts in 2012, one year after his Miami Heat were eliminated in the NBA Finals by the Dallas Mavericks. James said it was a way for him to block out noise.
"There's too much nonsense out there," he said in 2015, per the Associated Press (h/t USA Today). "Not during this time, this is when I lock in right now, and I don't need nothing creeping into my mind that don't need to be there."
Those who have been able to watch James' "Zero Dark Thirty-23" period up close speak of his increased focus on and off the court. There is a decrease in levity, his silly Halloween parties being nothing but distant memories. Filling that void is a renewed sense of urgency—a recognition that any series is just four games from being over.
James says he has changed his sleep patterns this season and that it's been a boon to his success in his 15th year. But once the playoffs roll through, he's not just well-rested, he's laser focused.
"A lot of the smiles are gone," Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said. "Coming into practice, he's a lot more focused. He gets everyone else focused, in the right mindset. ... He's more serious about what's going on. Throughout the course of the season, 82 games is so long. ... You have to enjoy it. But he understands that when it comes to playoff time, this is our bread and butter. We want to win a championship. He becomes a lot more serious."
The blackout is also James' way to lead his team and live out the behaviors he feels lead to improved results.
Only three other players remain from the Cavaliers roster that won the NBA championship in 2016 (Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith). This season, the Cavs acquired four players (George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson) who have never been to an NBA Finals, two of whom do not even have playoff experience (Nance and Clarkson).
Nance has heard of James' blackout period, but only since moving to Cleveland from Los Angeles. Though he's not the most active NBA player on social media, he admits that opening a phone only to mindlessly flip through a feed can be a substantial waste of time.
"It depends how much you care about what people have to say on there," Nance said. "If you want to find someone saying you're the greatest player who ever lived, you can find that. If you want to find someone saying you belong in the trash can, you can find that. It all depends how much you pay attention to it. It doesn't bother me."
There are plenty of social media users ready to crown James the best player who ever lived, but there's also no shortage of individuals primed to pounce upon the first hint of anything less. Was he aggressive enough? Did he pass when he should have shot? Does he still have it?
"You have to keep the main thing the main thing," James said. "In the postseason, you lose one game and it's the end of the world. You win one game and everyone praises you. When the postseason happens, it's one game at a time. That's all that matters. The outside noise doesn't matter."
In a matter of days, Zero Dark Thirty-23 will be activated, and that outside noise won't even exist, at least in the world of LeBron James.