LeBron James hasn’t been in this position much.
Oh, he’s been up 1-0 in an Eastern Conference semifinals series plenty of times, but he’s never been taken to seven games in the first round before. His teams have swept their first-round series the last five years, and the Cleveland Cavaliers have extolled the virtues of resting for a week between series.
This time around, James won Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers in Cleveland Sunday — one that saw him experience cramps in the second half before saying afterwards, “I’m tired” — traveled to Toronto, and then played 47 minutes of an overtime Game 1 win over the Raptors on Tuesday — an outing he called “one of my worst games of the season” (despite a triple-double). Game 2 is on Thursday night.
So, you can understand why James might wish he had an extra day off to recover:
“It’s kind of weird that we’re the only series that doesn’t get two days in between games,” he told reporters at Thursday’s shootaround. “That’s kind of weird. But, that’s why I’m going to be as efficient as possible with my energy in between days. So, I was able to get a lot of rest yesterday, and I look forward to the challenge tonight.”
It is true. The Cleveland-Toronto series is the only one this round that has a game every other day. The other Eastern Conference series has two days off between Games 1 and 2 before going every other day, just because the Boston Bruins had a home game on the schedule in TD Garden on Wednesday.
James is a freak athlete. After leading the NBA in minutes per game each of the past two seasons and playing all 82 games for the first time in his career this year, he’s played almost 50 more minutes (more than a full game) than anybody else in these playoffs. He’s also 33 years old and working on his 15th NBA season (with essentially three more seasons worth of playoff games added into the mix).
Given what we know about the value of rest in terms of limiting injuries and prolonging careers, it is remarkable that James is playing arguably his best basketball. He’s averaging 33.4 points (52.8 percent shooting), 10.1 rebounds and 8.4 assists in the playoffs, and the Cavaliers have needed every bit of it.
These aren’t the Cavs of yesteryear. They don’t have Kyrie Irving to carry the offensive burden for stretches when James needs a breather. They’ve barely survived with him on the court, and they can’t afford to rest him for more than a couple minutes at the end of the first and third quarters. He told coach Tyronn Lue he was going to play all of Game 7 before the cramps caught up to him, and the Cavs have been fortunate to hold the fort for two second-half stretches without James the past two games.
Since the playoffs started, James is averaging 30.6 points on 49.6 percent shooting in five games with one day of rest in these playoffs, and the Cavs have been outscored by 19 points with him on the floor. In a pair of games on two days rest, he’s averaging 45 points on 64.6 percent shooting, and Cleveland has outscored opponents by nine points in his 82 minutes. His efficiency followed a similar pattern in the regular season. Generally speaking, the more rest, the better. And the Cavs need him at his best.
So, what to do? James is essentially stealing time whenever he can on the court.
“It’s not like you’re out there and you’re like, ‘OK, I’m not going to get back on defense here,'” he said. “It’s just about picking your spots and having teammates out there who can take a few possessions for you offensively, and you can use all your energy on the defensive side for a few possessions.”
Toronto sure would like to see more of those possessions on Thursday, when James will probably be playing 40-plus minutes for the third time in five nights. The series goes back to Cleveland for Game 3 on Saturday. You wonder when this will all catch up to James or if he’ll terminate the league forever.
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