Hey, here’s a misleading stat: LeBron James is the slowest player left in the NBA playoffs.
The 33-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers superstar has moved at an average speed of 3.73 miles per hour on the court, according to Second Spectrum tracking data, which ranks second-to-last among players with at least seven playoff minutes to their name. Only Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jeff Teague, hobbled by a knee injury, was slower (3.70 miles per hour), and he was eliminated a month ago.
For the record, James scored 44 points on 28 shots in a 111-102 win over the Boston Celtics that evened the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece on Monday. Here’s how he feels about tacking data:
“That’s the dumbest s*** I’ve ever heard,” he told The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd. “That tracking bulls*** can kiss my a**. The slowest guy? Get out of here.”
I’m willing to bet the Celtics feel the same way.
LeBron James is literally slowing down
“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.”
LeBron played all 82 games for the first time in his 15-year career, and he leads the league in both regular-season and playoff minutes this season, so he has to find opportunities to recharge the batteries while he’s still on the court. As much as he might seem superhuman, even he has his limits.
“Tell them to track how tired I am after the game, track that s***,” James told The Athletic. “I’m No. 1 in the NBA on how tired I am after the game.”
We don’t really need to track that s***. We could tell how taxing this all is when he told Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue he was playing all 48 minutes of Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers in the first round, only to exit the game for some water and orange slices for his cramps in the third quarter.
Here’s a more telling stat: James has covered more miles this postseason than anybody but Terry Rozier, the lightning-quick 24-year-old Celtic who’s been chasing around guards for three rounds. Oh, and his 33.7 points per game lead the league in the playoffs. So do his 135 assists in 15 games.
Conserving energy isn’t exactly revolutionary
There are skeptics about whether, as Windhorst put it, “James has perfected the art of resting while playing” by walking three-quarters of the time he’s on the court — that this is all that revolutionary.
“We call that resting on the court, when you’re walking and not running or sliding,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told The Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich Show” when the subject came up in mid-May, “But, yeah, it’s called resting. You don’t ever see T.J. McConnell resting. …
“LeBron has the ball in his hands so much, he defends multiple positions, [but] every great player finds moments to rest. He is efficient, and he knows when to take his time. He knows when to give the ball to somebody else to bring it up the court. He knows when it’s his time to get the ball in his hands and run up the court. He does utilize his energy. It’s exhausting if you have to create offense on every single possession, but LeBron, like James Harden, like Chris Paul — all of those guys I would classify as very efficient players in that they pick their spots of when they go really hard and explosive to the rim and when they’re just probing in a pick-and-roll to try to get the ball to someone else for a shot.”
(For the record, Harden and Paul’s average speeds also rank among the slowest in these playoffs.)
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue would tend to agree.
“If you think about it, he don’t really move unless he gets the ball in transition,” Lue told The Athletic. “Then he’s flying. Other than that, he ain’t doing no movement. The last couple games, the movement we’ve had, we got him holding while everybody else is moving around. He’s just standing. He ain’t going to move.”
Yet another reason the switches of Rozier onto LeBron, who takes his time backing down the smaller defender, isn’t working for the Celtics. This is why Marcus Morris sees the value of making James work.
Will LeBron’s average speed catch up to the Cavaliers?
The question, as it relates to these Cavaliers, is whether this is a sustainable recipe for success. Without Kyrie Irving to carry Cleveland’s offense for however many spells, James has assumed an extraordinary offensive burden. His usage rate is second only to Harden among players still left standing, and we’ve all seen clips of the Houston Rockets superstar conserving energy on defense.
James has been forced to take those as well, and the Celtics made the Cavs pay in Games 1 and 2 in Boston. That flipped in Cleveland when LeBron finally got some help on the offensive end. As Cavs teammate Kyle Korver put it to ESPN after Game 4, “We were just relying on LeBron to do everything.”
Three days passed when these conference finals moved from Boston to Cleveland, and the 30-point Game 3 blowout offered James ample opportunities to rest, even if Lue still played him 38 minutes. If LeBron leads the NBA in exhaustion after each game, it would follow those three days of the rest benefited him more than anyone else. There’s only one day between games for the rest of this series.
Boston’s game plan for the first two games almost seemed like a rope-a-dope — take away LeBron’s offensive help, make him work for buckets as best they can, and make him pay for conserving energy. The idea that he’s the NBA’s slowest player in the playoffs may be dumb, but it might still hold value.
Either that, or he’s been conserving energy all along just for this. In which case, good luck, Boston.
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