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Steve Aschburner

LeBron James has played at least 43 minutes in nine straight games.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE Getty Images

Playoff load weighs heavily on Heat's James

Posted Jun 14 2012 10:57AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Things that are tired in these NBA playoffs:

• Nerd glasses.

• Conspiracies about the Draft lottery.

• Floppers.

• LeBron James, maybe.

Seven weeks and 19 games into the Miami Heat's postseason grind, James had moments in Game 1 of The Finals on Tuesday when the fatigue of it all peeked through. A big exhale during a dead ball, those broad shoulders visibly slumping for a second or two. One play where he wound up on the floor and took just a little longer to rise before forcing himself to catch up on the other end.

James played almost 46 minutes, his ninth consecutive game logging 43 or more on his and the Heat's push toward an NBA championship. Coach Erik Spoelstra, who divvied up 228 of the game's 240 available minutes to just six players, is leaning heavily on the league's Most Valuable Player, as are his teammates, as are the Miami fans, as are the league honchos and network executives and broadcast sponsors and ...

So when James entertained, however briefly, the idea of rest, however brief, after his team's 105-94 loss to Oklahoma City in the series opener, he was almost immediately assailed by some of his ever-present critics. All it took was a simple statement of fact -- "We're going to have to have more guys in there to give me and [Dwyane Wade] a rest" -- to bring out the cynics. Hey, you never saw Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson asking for rest in The Finals!

It's the world James lives in. Fans surely aren't going to give it a rest anytime soon. And from the sound of it, the same might be true for Spoelstra with James.

"I'll probably go a little bit deeper into the rotation obviously, try to get the guys a little more rest," he said on the day before Game 2. "But we're not making any excuses. Their two top guys played the same amount of minutes. ... Fatigue wasn't an issue."

Like a lot of coaches, Spoelstra relies on timeouts -- particularly the XXL ones of the playoffs, whether wedged into quarters or spacing out halves -- to regulate his guys' minutes. "Little pockets of time," he calls them, that can bring some relief without costing Miami even a tick on the game clock of James' or others' services. Then there's the playoff pace -- turnover, foul, free throw, all in a halfcourt game -- that can stretch one or two minutes out of the game to five, six or seven real minutes on the bench. "You know, at this point, there's 10 days left in the season," Spoelstra said. "Both teams have played quite a few minutes up to this point, and we're very capable, and our guys understand that."

How do the two Finals teams stack up in minutes and grind? Let's compare:

• Miami has played 19 playoff games, with one extra game in each of the first three rounds: five against New York, six against Indiana and seven against Boston. Oklahoma City got through Dallas in four, the L.A. Lakers in five and San Antonio in six for a total now of 16.

• In terms of days between rounds and available rest, the Thunder has a big edge: 18 days in the gaps between its series (8-5-5), compared to the Heat's eight (3-3-2).

• Miami has four players who are averaging at least 32 minutes per game (James 42.6, Wade 39.3, Mario Chalmers 35.4 and Shane Battier 32.8). Oklahoma City is using only Kevin Durant (41.9) and Russell Westbrook (37.4) that heavily, with six other players logging 16-30 minutes on average.

• James has played an NBA-high 809 minutes this postseason, third-most so far in his seven playoffs trips. Durant, in three fewer games, has played 670 minutes. Add in their regular-season minutes and James has 3,135 on his 2011-12 meter compared to Durant's 3,216 (thanks to a league-leading 2,546 in the first 66 games).

• Durant played more than 40 minutes in a game 29 times in the regular season and 12 times in 16 playoff games, with six of 43 minutes or more. James' parallel numbers: 18, 15 of 19 and 11 -- including the past nine. In fact, over that stretch for Miami -- nine games in 20 days -- James has averaged 45:41.

This isn't just a James vs. Durant comparison, though. In the young legs department, the Heat superstar, at 27, is closer in age and mileage to "old man" Wade, 30, than he is to Durant, 23. This is more about James and his giant minutes, in terms of what's best for him and Miami and in terms of what traditionally has worked.

So how tired does James look to the guys who know him and his game best?

"I can't tell," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. "In my mind, I think he's the most well-conditioned athlete in the world, so I never think he needs a blow. I haven't seen [fatigue] with my own eyes. He eats right, keeps himself in great shape, takes care of his body. He's been an ironman for us all season."

Said Oklahoma City assistant coach Rex Kalamian: "You ask, 'How is he in fourth quarters? Is he still strong?' When you get fatigued, to me, as a scorer, you can tell by a guy who's not working to get the ball. And a guy who's taking jump shots as opposed to playing his normal game and driving with the basketball. I haven't seen that -- I think he's like a Russell Westbrook-type -- but I haven't seen him enough to know, like, 'This guy needs rest at certain periods of time.'

"He can actually go to the post a little bit and alleviate some of that running. I know Kobe [Bryant] has tried to do it the last couple of years, where he's alleviated a lot of running by getting to that elbow, getting to that sweet spot and saying, 'Y'know what, I'm going to relax a little bit on offense. Catch it down low and not work as much.' "

Before The Finals began, Durant addressed the issue of wear 'n' tear like most players. "The most we can get is seven games, so you've got to suck it up for seven more," he said. There is a difference between sucking it up and sucking wind, though, and it's up to a team's coaches and training staff to gauge their players -- and look for telltale signs of fatigue.

Boston coach Doc Rivers, in five seasons with Kevin Garnett, has learned that having the 7-footer for fewer minutes but with full intensity is better than having Garnett longer but with less energy and focus. So Rivers is disciplined about yanking him, at 36 years old, at regular intervals, no matter how badly it hurts the Celtics on the scoreboard during those stints.

Garnett had a plus/minus of +164 from the first round through Game 5 of the East finals against Miami, until he and the Celtics appeared to run out of gas in dropping the last two games to Miami; those shaved 30 points off Garnett's rating. Just shows you how a player and his team can sag once they start bending over and grabbing their shorts.

"Well, it's a fine line, honestly, especially now being in The Finals" James said Wednesday. "There's always times where you would like to get a minute here, a minute there, two minutes there, and I've got to be more out with my coaching staff when I feel like I may need [rest].

"But there's also times where I may feel tired but I'm playing well, we're playing well, so I don't want to mess up the rhythm. ... It's a fine line with getting rest and just playing through it because I don't feel like I hurt my teammates when I am out there."

In the eternal analysis of James' performances, few stones have gone unturned in determining why he struggles -- or better, let's say fails to dominate -- late in games. An article on Basketball Prospectus broke down James' play with various amounts of rest between games rather than during games and noted that three of his four 30-point, 10-rebound games to that point in the postseason had come with more than two days rest. But James has done it four more times since that article was written, each time while playing every other day.

A piece on, meanwhile, noted that since 2003, no player has won an NBA title while averaging more than 42 minutes. It also illustrated that, if this series stretches to at least six games and James averages 45 minutes the rest of the way, he will wind up playing 1,034 minutes in 24 games, surpassing Tim Duncan's mark of 1,021 in 24 when he averaged 42.5 mpg and helped San Antonio win its second championship in 2003. That's the most minutes in one playoffs by a member of a championship team.

But it also included this factoid, which Miami might find comforting: Since 2003, only Wade has won a title while averaging more than 41 minutes. That happened 19 times between 1980 and 2003.

The hope for Miami is that if James can't turn back the clock on his heavy court usage, maybe he can turn it back a little on NBA history.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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