INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue has no reservations about playing LeBron James 43.8 minutes per game in his team’s first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers and, in fact, believes other coaches should ride their stars more in the postseason.
“Of course, we’re always cognizant of LeBron’s minutes, but in looking at this situation, we didn’t look at the minutes as an issue,” Lue told ESPN. “It makes more sense to close out the series and have the additional rest versus playing potentially even more minutes, potentially 96-144 more minutes. Closing out and the rest that comes with it far outweighs the other potential scenario.”
James led the way for the Cavs against the Pacers with series averages of 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.0 blocks. At 32 years old and in his 14th season, his 43.8 minutes per game in the postseason currently leads all players. It is an uptick from his 37.8 minutes per game in the regular season, which also led the league, the most he’s played since the 2012-13 season in Miami.
“I mean, I don’t understand why people make a big deal out of minutes,” Lue told reporters Wednesday, when his team had its first full practice session as a group since sweeping Indiana on Sunday. “He had a week off before the series started. We won four straight games, and then he had a week off again. So next [series] he might play 48 minutes.”
James will end up having played only four games in three weeks by the time the Cavs’ second-round series tips off Monday against either the Toronto Raptors or the Milwaukee Bucks.
“It’s just part of the playoffs — how he’s feeling, how the games are going,” said Lue, who played James the entire second half of Game 3 against the Pacers when Cleveland rallied back from down 26 in the third quarter to win. “But there’s no back-to-backs.
“Teams are suffering because they listen to what the media is saying about guys playing minutes.”
“Some teams should play some guys more minutes, and it would’ve been different series,” Lue explained without naming names. “So, whatever.”
Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook averaged 38.8 minutes per game in the Thunder’s five-game loss to the Houston Rockets. The Thunder struggled mightily when he went to the bench in the series. OKC was plus-15 with him on the court and minus-58 with him off of it. That minus-58 came in just 46 minutes, so the Thunder were outscored 137-79 in an amount of time nearly equivalent to a regulation game, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“I think a lot of guys are capable of doing that,” Lue said when asked what percentage of players could play 40-plus minutes and not have a significant drop off in performance. “A lot of guys are taking care of their body. NBA players are some of the best-conditioned guys in athletics in their sport, so they can definitely do it. I think a lot of times coaches get sidetracked by what other guys, what the media said or whatever. But you just got to go off what you feel, how the guys feel, how the players feel and what your team needs at this time. So, if Bron plays 46 minutes and [Kyrie Irving] plays 45 minutes and we win, then it’s worth it. And if we need them to play that many minutes to win in the playoffs, then it’s absolutely worth it.”
Lue argued that James’ regular-season workload prepared him for the extended run now.
“Bron today just said he feels worse when he doesn’t play,” Lue said. “Like right now, he said he feels worse, so, we just got to gauge it and see how he feels. Everyone else’s minutes were great outside of LeBron. He said he feels great. He didn’t really have a defensive assignment. He was able to roam off guys during the series and, so, it was good for him. With him playing the minutes he played during [the] course of the regular season, it has helped him in the playoffs. Now he is able to play those 42, 43 minutes. Because he’s used to it. His body can take it, so, I’m not worried about what outside people say.”
James addressed his heavy minutes following Game 4.
“The game plan is from the coaching staff,” James said. “Coaches always ask me how I’m feeling throughout the game, and I feel great. If I’m out on the floor and I’m hurting us by playing a lot of minutes, then I need to come out. But in this series, I played a lot of minutes, and I felt great. I actually could have played the whole game if need be.”
This wasn’t hyperbole by James. Multiple team sources told ESPN that James tried to plead his case to stay in the game when being subbed out briefly at the end of the third quarter of Game 4.
Lue added that James has benefited by scheduled games off to rest during the regular season and rarely practicing in order to preserve his body for the long haul.
“We gave him games off here and there, but also, for him to play those kinds of minutes, it was good for him because he said he was able to stay in shape because we wasn’t practicing as much,” Lue said. “He knows his body better than anyone. He said he feels great, and he feels worse when he doesn’t play, so we’ll see how that works out.”
Of course, not every player is like James. Irving’s minutes actually dropped from 35.1 per game in the regular season to 34.3 in the first round. Would he be able to play the entire game in the playoffs like James?
“I mean, that is, man, that is like an emergency glass, break just in case, if the situation calls for it to play 48 minutes,” Irving said. “At any given time, whether guys are tired or hurt, I think they’ll stay out there as long as possible. But we leave the minutes situation to T-Lue in terms of the rotation. In terms of the preparation that goes without people seeing, that’s far, beginning in the summertime and including the regular season and amping it up a little bit in the playoffs as well as being smart. So, you just try to prepare as much as you can to be able to sustain a high level of play for as long as you can.”
Still, it seems like James — who Lue referred to as “Benjamin Button,” the fictional movie character played by Brad Pitt who aged in reverse — is a special case.
“It’s impressive,” Irving said. “It’s impressive. It’s impressive, man. It’s nothing short of impressive. So, I mean he does an incredible job of just taking care of his body, making sure he’s prepared. So you got to give credit to a man like that.”