LeBron James is fine, he says. He’s averaging the sort of numbers that we fussed about all season – a triple-double mark of 28.5 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists in 39.5 minutes per game – shooting 55 percent and getting to the line 17 times in these Finals.
So his Cavaliers have lost twice to the Golden State Warriors. You would, too, if you were taking on a 73-win team that added Kevin Durant. These things tend to happen (to 18 NBA teams in particular) during Golden State’s ongoing 29-1 run.
Durant averaged 35.5 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in two MVP-level contests prior to Wednesday, his Warriors winning by 41 points in total. It’s that stark difference, and the sight of LeBron and other Cavaliers tugging at their shorts after an initial attempt to keep up with Golden State in Game 2, led media to wonder if James had tired a bit due to his pairing with Mr. Durant:
LeBron James says guarding Kevin Durant doesn't take a toll
"Do I look tired? I'm averaging a triple-double in the Finals. I'm pretty good." pic.twitter.com/W6WKOU2Fes
— Courtney Cronin (@CourtneyRCronin) June 7, 2017
This isn’t about how James feels on the morning of June 7. The morning of Game 3 came after his 43rd day off since April 10, a long stretch made sleepier by LeBron’s dominant turn of basketball during the Eastern Conference playoffs. Of course James feels better now than he did on the actual morning of April 10, following a five-game-in-eight-day regular season stretch that saw James average 43 minutes a contest.
That’s not the point. The distinction pivots on how James feels when it’s time to turn the corner in the third and fourth quarters; and if he’s starting to wear significantly by that time, in spite of all the rest he’s enjoyed during this postseason run. From there, it is more than fair to question whether or not James’ legs (and, more importantly, confidence in his risk-taking) will be fully springy in the clutch, should his Cavaliers ever get to the clutch in what has been a one-sided, drama-free series thus far.
The onus would then be on James, it would seem, to prove yet again that he is something beyond beyond-normal. The we’ve seen LeBron James before-qualifier you can toss in counts for twice as many sublime late-game moments of brilliance as it does its stunning failures, but there still have been some deadening letdowns in James’ past.
Sometimes due to fatigue, and the fact that a two and a half-hour game can sometimes get away from even superhumans.
Still, if a change in pace isn’t in the cards for LeBron and his cohorts, and the crew feels up to sustaining the fastest NBA Finals in modern league history, then he’s going to have to find a way to play stronger basketball in however many competitive minutes Game 3’s second half will afford him.
LeBron got to the rim fewer times in the second half of Game 2 than he did in the first half, with Durant bounding about. James didn’t exactly take plays off, but he could be seen watching from the perimeter in ways he wouldn’t have been in sprightlier times. One could excuse LeBron for acting as the first body back on defense in the anticipation of the impending Warrior avalanche, but James would also then call out leakers for teammates to defend in these instances. Not exactly acting a total Rick Fox out there, defensively.
LBJ should then point out to us that his box score lines didn’t exactly remind of Mr. Fox’s contributions during his turn as Phil Jackson’s lead transition defense specialist in Los Angeles, but that wouldn’t be covering everything. Observers were right to conclude that many of James’ teammates had let him down in Games 1 and 2, alongside understanding GSW’s hand in the 2-0 lead, but LeBron was counted on to be all-time monstrous if the Cavaliers were to be left with a chance to defend, and so far he’s merely been Westbrook-like.
Again, there has been time to recharge. James led the NBA in minutes during the regular season but he’s worked only 15 games since April 10, and though even his best attempts at Durant often resulted in a swish in Game 2, it isn’t as if James has had to chase around the best of them through the first three rounds.
For all the bluster about Paul George acting as a sugar water-sellin’ superstar, a franchise talent, he makes it easy far too often for James’ defense, in spite of some of Paul’s more notable outbursts. Toronto and Boston provided little individual challenge, and don’t pretend as if James was minding his time as a perpetually world-changing team defender in dominant ways while charged with a roamer: Cleveland entered these Finals with the third-best defensive rating among 16 playoff teams, but with Kyle Lowry and Isaiah Thomas losing time to injury along the way.
LeBron’s blow came earlier in Game 2 than it did in Game 1, leaving the game for the bench with half a minute left to go in the first quarter before sitting for the real-time break, prior to the first two minutes of the second quarter. It’s worth wondering if James needs a spot in a chair even earlier than the 11:32 mark, though, given the very real chance (with hours of waiting and hype doing a number on an athlete’s tank) James is wearing himself out far too early, that the issue for all superstars isn’t minutes in total but the application of the minutes, especially during his first wind.
Of course, you try telling LeBron James to sit down.
Viewers, despite being treated to nearly two months’ worth of playoff blowouts at this point, are starved for fourth quarter basketball. The drop-off in ratings from quarter to quarter as Golden State builds its eventual blowout is not as severe as one would estimate, with overall ratings that act as the best since Michael Jordan’s last Finals gasp in Utah, back in 1998.
It’s normal to be tired after chasing Kevin Durant around for 40 minutes a night, it’s normal to tire significantly after even 21 or possibly 11 and a half minutes of that action. It’s not normal that we expect as much from LeBron James, and he has been outwardly confident before missteps before, but it’s best not to cling to too certain of a crag in this series until we’ve seen LeBron play at his best.
He might know what he’s talking about.
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