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A Clockwork Orange: LeBron Pushes Himself Past His Limits

James tried to beat the Pacers all by himself. But a historic workload this season finally caught up to him and had him reaching for the orange slices by the end of the Cavs’ Game 7 win.

Indiana Pacers v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Seven Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

LeBron James wanted to do everything in Game 7 against the Pacers, and for a while, it seemed like he might. He made his first seven shots, helping to give the Cavaliers a double-digit lead in the first quarter, and defiantly shouted to the sideline “I’M PLAYING THE WHOLE GAME.”

It seemed like he needed to play the whole game. James shot 11-for-15 in the first half; the rest of the Cavs went 10-for-32. At one point, James had 38 points and his teammates had 37. If James took a breather, what would Cleveland even do? Tristan Thompson post-ups? Kyle Korver isos? Rodney Hood–Jeff Green pick-and-rolls? Why not just save everybody some time and call the game?

James won the final game of this first-round series with one of the finest clutch performances of a career full of them—he had 45 points, the fourth-highest-scoring Game 7 in NBA history, tied with his own 45-point performance in 2008 against the Celtics, along with seven assists and nine rebounds. But he couldn’t hold up his promise to play all 48 minutes.

With about a minute left in the third quarter, James left for the locker room with cramps. He would return to the court area after about a minute had gone by in the fourth quarter but didn’t directly check into the game, instead sitting on the bench and eating orange slices.

When he did get back on the floor, with 8:25 to play, he appeared gassed. He shot just 2-for-4 from the field the rest of the way while committing three fouls and three turnovers with no assists.

Oddly, the non-Brons saved the day, going on a 7-0 run after James exited for the first time. (Has LeBron James been holding the Cavaliers back this whole time?) Players such as Kevin Love and George Hill produced in the fourth quarter, allowing the Cavaliers to win 105-101, preventing James’s tiredness from costing him a game in which he played magnificently until his body couldn’t go any further.

It is stunning to see LeBron James tired. We’ve seen LeBron lose basketball games before—there have been times when it has seemed like he is not good enough, or times when his team was simply outmatched. But LeBron has never lost to his own body before. He has never been significantly injured; his combination of size, speed, and strength makes him one of the most remarkable athletes in the history of any sport. There was the one time he cramped up in Game 1 of the Finals, but that seemed to have more to do with a faulty air conditioning system in the San Antonio summer than LeBron’s inability to keep going.

After the game, James admitted that he was “burnt” and wanted to go home:

He won’t really be able to. The Cavaliers play Game 1 of their series against the Raptors in two days, in Canada.

It makes sense that James is tired. At 33 years old, 15 years into his career, James led the NBA in games and minutes played; he was the oldest player ever to do the latter. James used to be an advocate for the premise that players should take games off to rest their bodies during the regular season. But this season, he played 82 games for the first time in his career. Part of that is because the NBA expanded its schedule into October this year, allowing stars like James more time to rest their body in between games to kill the DNP-Rest.

And after that 82-game season, James just had the toughest first-round battle of his career. He’d lost a combined seven first-round games in the first 14 years of his career before losing three this year—and averaged 41 minutes per game in this series.

James had perhaps the finest season of his life, posting the best assist and rebound numbers of his career (both per game and per 36 minutes) while shooting 54.2 percent from the field (fourth best of his career) and scoring 26.8 points per 36 minutes (tied for third highest of his career). And the surrounding cast around him is drastically worse than any he’s played with since leaving Cleveland for Miami in 2010.

So he will continue to exhaust himself. That probably isn’t good for Cleveland. James’s brilliance powered Cleveland to an early lead, but his lesser performance after his body was sapped of energy almost allowed Indiana to win the game. The non-Brons bailed a tired James out on Sunday, but their success without James doesn’t seem particularly sustainable.

It feels like James is fighting, I don’t know, some sort of war that goes on for infinity. I haven’t seen the rest of the playoffs yet, so there are no spoilers here. But I feel like no matter how many times we’ve seen Cleveland’s superhero prevail in the past, something’s going to go differently this time.