Not eight minutes into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, LeBron James was bent over, grabbing his shorts. The figurative weight on his shoulders this postseason seemed literal in that moment, the first of many times in the Cavs’ 96-83 loss to the Celtics on Wednesday that James was short of breath. “For whatever reason,” an anchor quipped on the postgame SportsCenter, “he was tired.”
To be fair, LeBron doesn’t have whatever reason to be tired, but all the reasons. He leads the postseason in total minutes played, which is an accomplishment even without considering his grueling regular season. This was no “taking a couple days off in Miami” year for LeBron—he finished first in minutes played during the regular season, too, and was on the court for all 82 games for the first time in his career. The last time he played that many minutes, LeBron was 26. (Steve Nash led in assists that season! Carmelo Anthony had just been traded from the Nuggets to the Knicks! Kevin Love was almost to his handsome stage!) LeBron is now 33. Even if he says his game is at “an all-time high,” that number should be part of his byline now, broadcast after each flying drive to the basket like it is for Jayson Tatum. “He’s only 20!” does, admittedly, seem more polite—if not more remarkable—than “He’s 33!”
LeBron’s teammates are also worth considering, if only to make the point that they aren’t worth consideration. A sorry band of point guards (first Derrick Rose, then Jose Calderon, then George Hill, then Jordan Clarkson) forced LeBron to run the point, as well as play forward, as well as post up. He’s Cleveland’s Giannis, but with a decade on him. “Not giving in to fatigue is a big part of who he is,” Tyronn Lue said in early May.
Which is why it feels so unnatural to see that hunched-over, head-hanging body language from LeBron. When was the last time you remember LeBron being out with 2:25 left in the first half, only to sit for less than 40 seconds, then re-enter? When was the last time he did that in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals?
Earlier this month, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote about how LeBron finds in-game rest. When a teammate is taking a free throw, for example, LeBron might walk down to the other end of the court rather than run the distance 10 seconds later. “During the regular season,” Windhorst wrote, “about 74.4 percent of James’s time on the court was spent walking. Again, this was in the top 10 in the league. Almost no one walked up and down the floor more than James. And in the playoffs, he’s walking even more—78.7 percent of the time.” Finding rest when he can to offset his explosive playing style is only the latest way LeBron has reinvented his game to account for age.
Though it’s unbelievable now, LeBron’s game once seemed like it might not age well—the cross all hyper-athletic scorers must bear (the same was said about Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose back in the day; and is said about Russell Westbrook now). But playing more on the perimeter allowed him to look elsewhere for points, a move that might be more appreciated if his athleticism showed any signs of waning. In 2014, he slimmed down. After playing a season in suboptimal shape, he lost weight and became quicker. Metabolism fades; LeBron doesn’t.
But LeBron has never reached this degree of exhaustion before in his career, and this is the worst team he’s had to carry in quite some time. Last postseason, he had Kyrie Irving. This postseason, Cleveland misses Irving more than Boston does now. Not only is LeBron pulling the majority of the weight, he’s also being pulled further than in the past. If this series against the Celtics goes to Game 7, that’ll be LeBron’s 100th game this season, tied for the most he’s ever played—and he’s not even in the Finals yet.
By the time James had played this many playoff minutes in 2017, the Cavs and Warriors were about to play Game 4 of the Finals. Cleveland won that game, but the series didn’t end well for the Cavs. At the same point in the season prior, LeBron was three games away from the greatest comeback in NBA history. That infamous 3-1 comeback in 2016 made many people, myself included, promise to never again count him out. But in 2018, even if Kyle Korver keeps shooting and making his shots, even if Kevin Love can stay out of foul trouble, even if Tristan Thompson can handle Boston defensively, Cleveland isn’t winning another game in May without a LeBron who’s been left on the charger overnight.