By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
LeBron James is tired. Or he simply acted like it for 48 minutes in a series-swinging Game 5 loss in Boston.
Say what you will about James the person, but James the competitor doesn’t seem like the type to back this Cavaliers team into a corner by simply tapping out in Game 5 and believing that he could turn it on and win back-to-back must-wins. Maybe he could have afforded that with the Cavaliers that had Kyrie Irving and a better Kevin Love, but not this Cleveland squad that got a combined 10 points from three starters (George Hill, JR Smith, and Tristan Thompson) in Game 5.
“Just saw him clutched over a few times early on in the game and throughout the course of the game,” Cleveland coach Ty Lue said of LeBron’s fatigue in Game 5. “I tried to get him out early enough in that third quarter so we could bring him back in the fourth quarter, but he just wasn’t ready yet. It happens. But one thing about it, I know he’ll be ready to play Game 6, so fatigue won’t be a problem and an issue. I’m pretty sure a lot of guys are tired during this stretch of the year.”
But unfortunately for James, Game 6 does not come with the four-day break that his last Boston-to-Cleveland trip did.
So it’s now, with just one day off, that the exhausted-looking James will have to will his team to victory.
And it’s left us with two possible endings for James, the Cavaliers, and the C’s bid to punch their ticket to round four.
The first ending: The 33-year-old James rises to the challenge, dominates like he has at home all series, and powers the Cavaliers to a survivalist Game 6 win. It’s the most likely end result, too, as James has shot 62.5 percent at home in this series and averaged 35.5 points, 7.5 assists, and five rebounds over that two-game sample. Factor that in with the Green’s undeniable road struggles — with one win in seven postseason tries away from Causeway — and it’s easy money for No. 23.
“If I had to pick one guy and choose one guy to prevail, it would be LeBron,” Lue said.
“I know he’ll be great come [Friday], and then after that we’ll see.”
Prevailing on Friday would also let James, a free agent likely to begin his second chapter away from his home with The Decision 2.0 this summer, to be Ohio’s hero one final time no matter what happens in Game 7. This would be the going away present for all parties involved, and allow James to bask in glory one final time (again) before they burn his jerseys (again).
To back all of this up, road teams have been horrendous in this series, with the Celtics looking especially bad in their two games in Cleveland, as they were run out of the building in the first half of both games and missed countless gimmes.
…But then there’s the possibility of that other ending, which comes with James being legitimately exhausted at this point.
Let’s consider the numbers: James, in his 15th NBA season, led the entire NBA in minutes this past season, with 3,026. That mark gave James a 44-minute lead on the Bucks’ Khris Middleton for the league lead, and it was LeBron’s first 3,000-plus minute season since his first year in Miami. James also led the league in field goals and was second in field goal attempts.
James ranks first among all players in minutes this postseason, too, with 649 minutes through 16 games (Boston’s Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford are the only other NBA postseason talents with more than 600 minutes logged). That means that James has played 3,675 minutes this season and he hasn’t even reached the fourth and final round of postseason play, which is more than what he totaled last year (3,538) and when the Cavs won the title in 2016 (3,531).
That’s without considering the fact that James has been to seven straight NBA Finals, too, meaning his seasons have been on average 14-to-21 games longer than your average NBA talent. Greatest player of this generation or not, it takes a toll on your game, both mentally and physically. Doubly so when you’re talking about what James would be dragging to the 2018 Final.
He’s absolutely carrying an entire franchise of dead weight on his back’ thing, which while spun into an excuse, is completely legitimate if you’ve spent time watching the Cavaliers this spring. I mean, jeez, you’re talking about a Cavalier team that was jumping for joy when Kyle Korver played decent defense and contributed 15 points. Plan the parade.
LeBron’s fatigue looks as real as the C’s road woes, and the rest of the Cavs go as LeBron does, which is why the Celtics have to make this second ending a reality with an energetic rush that collapses James in Game 6.
“We just have to go out and play. We can’t think about it as a Game 7. Just like [Wednesday], we were thinking [that] was a Game 5,” Horford said of the challenge in front of the C’s. “We have a good challenge to go on the road. We haven’t won there this season. It’s going to be very difficult, but we have a great opportunity in front of us. Our approach as a group, we’re going in there, staying together, playing the right way. We want to be more consistent playing the right way on the road.”
It’s the only way they can truly tire James out of Game 6, and in turn, out of the postseason.
Ty Anderson is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.