Cavs coach Tyronn Lue not bothered by LeBron James’ increased postseason minutes

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.”

Suffering?

“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.”

James Harden cites ankle injury after off game in Rockets’ win

OKLAHOMA CITY — Houston Rockets star guard James Harden said he has been hobbled by an ankle injury that occurred in Game 3 of this first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Harden made the revelation to ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the Rockets’ 113-109 Game 4 victory on Sunday afternoon.

Harden went 5-for-16 from the field (including 0-for-7 from 3-point range) and scored 16 points. It was the fewest points Harden has scored this postseason.

Despite the poor effort, the Rockets were able to get support from Nene, who scored a team-high 28 points off the bench and tied an NBA record by making 12 shots without a miss.

“It was pretty tough; we don’t make excuses,” Harden said in a news conference when asked about his health. “We just try to go out there and get the job done. You build trust, and trust in your teammates all year long. When there’s moments like this, guys step up and they did tonight. We have another opportunity in a few days to go out there and win on our home court, and we’re going to have to get off to a really good start.”

Harden didn’t walk with a limp, but he didn’t have his usual push on drives to the basket.

Harden, one of the main MVP candidates, finished second in the league in scoring and first in assists in the regular season. He battled through a jammed wrist late in the regular season but didn’t miss any games. The only game Harden missed was because of the flu.

“You just always got to step up, you just never know,” said forward Eric Gordon, who scored 18 points off the bench. “He had a little bit of a slow start; things are going to happen like that. Guys are going to play through (things) and he probably had an ankle injury, and that’s when guys have to keep on stepping up. We’re always going to do that for each other. We have the players to do it; we’re never going to rely on one person.”

Paul George: Comments not meant to ’cause any friction’ for Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS — Paul George insists it’s true: Instead of being unhappy with his teammates, the four-time All-Star just wants them to play better basketball.

As for the critics, well, they fall into a different category. Less than 48 hours after the Indiana Pacers star challenged two more players in a postgame news conference, George fired back at the notion that he was not supportive of his team.

“It’s complete ignorance, to be honest,” he said. “Everybody knows how close I am with my teammates and I said that only to motivate my teammates to win this series and win a championship. I didn’t say anything even close to throwing them under the bus. If I didn’t say nothing, it would have been another story.”

Twice, Indiana had chances to beat defending champion Cleveland on its home court. Both times, the Pacers failed in the final minute. If they can’t dig themselves out of an 0-2 deficit when the first-round series resumes in Indianapolis on Thursday night, George and Indiana will be facing an elimination game Sunday.

Still, George’s sharp, direct complaints after the first two games caught some off guard.

He complained that C.J. Miles should not have taken the final shot in the 109-108 Game 1 loss even though Miles had an open 14-footer. George, who is 0-for-14 in his career on potential go-ahead baskets in the final 20 seconds according to Basketball-Reference.com, wanted Miles to pass the ball back to him.

Then, after Tuesday’s 107-101 loss, George called on longtime friend Lance Stephenson to show more self-control and implored second-year center Myles Turner to get more physical. George also questioned the team’s defensive effort, and Indiana’s overall aggressiveness.

At age 26, George is still growing into the role of team leader and he has potentially 10s of millions of dollars riding on the media’s All-NBA teams. Like many other stars, George feels like he has a license to say what’s on his mind.

LeBron James, for instance, has not been silent about the personnel moves he thinks the Cavs should make and has never shied away from getting in teammates’ faces on the court. George named names, though the Pacers seemed to take no offense.

“In situations like that, our guys are free to speak and talk about situations like that,” coach Nate McMillan said. “You challenge your guys, your teammates. We believe in each other, we trust in each other and it was not a situation like there were hurt feelings in the locker room.”

In fact, George, Miles, Stephenson and Turner were smiling and laughing throughout practice Wednesday.

Turner acknowledged he must get more physical in this series, and Stephenson said he needs to find the balance between passion and playing out of control.

“When someone is scoring on you and you show frustration, they’re going to keep going at you and I think that’s what Paul was talking about,” Stephenson said after calling George his brother.

George is averaging 30.5 points, 7.0 assists and 6.5 rebounds in the first two games, similar to the numbers he had during a five-game winning streak that got the Pacers into the playoffs. His frustration likely runs deeper than two road losses in a first-round series against the defending champs.

Ever since Indiana took George at No. 10 overall in the 2010 draft, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward has envisioned bringing Indiana its first NBA title. Now the Pacers are two losses away from being eliminated by James’ team for the fourth time in six years, the first three while James played for Miami.

In February, George was rumored to be on the trading block and there have been constant questions since then about whether George would take a max deal to stay with the Pacers after next season or return to Los Angeles where he can try to help resurrect the Lakers’ franchise.

Right now, George just wants to win.

“I didn’t lose no sleep over it. I never do. Sometimes players just say things differently than coaches,” George said. “Everybody knows we (Stephenson and I) have a strong relationship. I didn’t say anything that’s going to cause any friction. We need Lance. He’s a leader in the locker room and we feed off his energy.”

Celtics well aware that Bulls’ Rajon Rondo steps up when it matters

WALTHAM, Mass. — There are only a handful of players remaining on the Boston Celtics’ roster who played alongside Rajon Rondo and only one — Avery Bradley — who was there before the ACL tear that slowed Rondo after four consecutive All-Star appearances.

And yet the legend of “National TV Rondo” has been passed on to a new generation of Celtics, including Isaiah Thomas, who emerged as the new face of the franchise in the aftermath of Rondo’s being dealt to the Dallas Mavericks in December 2014. As the top-seeded Celtics prepare for their first-round matchup with the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls, they are well aware of Rondo’s propensity to elevate his play when the games matter most.

“I’m a fan of the game. I know, whether he tries it or not, those big games he’s always gonna be ready for them,” Thomas said Friday after the Celtics went through their first workout of the postseason. The Celtics host the Bulls in Game 1 on Sunday night at TD Garden.

“He’s always gonna play his best [in big games],” said Thomas. “And that’s just me watching him when I was younger and before I got in the NBA. You know, when it counts, he’s gonna be ready and he’s gonna perform. So we’ve got to slow him down and eliminate what he does best, and that’s getting everyone involved.”

If there’s one obvious advantage the Bulls possess in this first-round matchup, it’s playoff experience. Rondo and teammate Dwyane Wade have combined to play in 260 postseason games and win four NBA championships. Yes, both are different players in the latter stages of their careers, but they know how to win on the big stage.

This young Celtics core, helmed by Thomas, has been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

“Rondo’s a hell of a guard and then you’ve got Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler and you’ve just got to make it hard for them, make it tough for them,” Thomas said. “Don’t let them see anything easy. It’s not just gonna be an individual defensive matchup. As a team, as a collective group, we’ve got to let them see five guys every time down. I mean Dwyane Wade is a guy that’s won championships, so he knows what to expect. We’ve got to be ready and I think we’re ready for the opportunity.”

Said Celtics coach Brad Stevens: “I’ve watched [Rondo and Wade] for way before I was in the NBA. I’m pretty sure we’re going to get great shots from both of them.”

Thomas is also certain that Boston fans are going to shower Rondo with affection for what he meant to the 2008 championship team and Boston’s playoff success in the years that followed, including deep postseason runs in 2010 and 2012.

“He won a championship here so they love the guy,” said Thomas. “It won’t be no bad feelings. I’ve heard if you win a championship here they’re gonna love you forever, so he’s earned that and he’s one of the best guards to ever play.”

Thomas hasn’t proved himself as a winner in the postseason, but he’s highly motivated to do so this year, especially after a regular season in which he put himself in the MVP conversation with his offensive wizardry.

When asked about what to expect from Thomas in the postseason, he smiled and said, “I’m ready for it.”

Bradley, easily the longest-tenured player on Boston’s roster despite being only 26 years old, fondly recalled what Rondo meant to him as a younger player.

“Rondo’s like my brother. On the court, off the court, we’re brothers,” said Bradley. “It’s weird playing against him, going up against him, but I think I said it last game: I know he’s a true competitor and he’s going to bring his best game in the playoffs. So it’s going to be fun playing against him. Weird but fun.

“I grew as a player and as a man. He’s helped me out in a lot of different ways. And I appreciate him. All his time here I feel like he was one of the best teammates that I’ve had. And he was a true competitor, one of the hardest-playing teammates I played with.

“His desire to win, I don’t know that many people (like that). He’s so competitive. It doesn’t matter what we’re playing. If we’re playing tic-tac-toe he wants to win every single game. So I respect that about him.”

Bradley said it was hard to watch Rondo struggle to perform like the franchise player he was in Boston during combustible stints in Dallas and Sacramento. And, from afar, Bradley remained supportive of Boston’s former captain.

“It was hard hearing all the negative things about him,” said Bradley. “But I just prayed for him. I wished him well. I would send him texts every now and then like, ‘Bro, it doesn’t matter.’ We’ve all been there before. He’s been the underdog before. He came into the NBA, people not thinking he could play. Everybody’s been there. It’s just their job to continue to work and prove people wrong. I feel like every year he’s been trying to do that.”

Russell Westbrook to sit out game for first time this season

MINNEAPOLIS — For the first time this season, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook will take a game off to rest Tuesday night.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan announced after Tuesday’s shootaround that Westbrook and power forward Taj Gibson will rest against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Small forward Doug McDermott (sore knee) and Andre Roberson (rest) will also not play.

It has been a historic season and road trip for Westbrook. He clinched averaging a triple-double for the season by recording his 820th assist in Friday’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to accomplish the feat.

Westbrook broke Robertson’s record for triple-doubles in a season with a spectacular performance in Sunday’s comeback win over the Denver Nuggets, putting up 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in his 42nd triple-double of the campaign, capping the performance with a 36-foot game winner at the buzzer.

Donovan said Westbrook ultimately made the decision to rest after discussing the issue with the coaching and medical staffs. His status for Wednesday’s season finale at home against the Nuggets has yet to be determined.

“He’s been unbelievable the way he’s played, the way he’s led,” Donovan said. “Sitting down and talking to him, talking to the medical staff, this was an opportunity [to rest him], but at the end of the day it’s his decision of how he feels and trying to capitalize on maybe taking a day off, a game off, and I get that. Ultimately, he’s going to be the one who’s going to make that decision. … At the end of the day, he was the one who also really felt that, OK, this would be a good day. I think myself and our medical staff really agreed with him that this would be a good opportunity to get some rest.”

Westbrook, an MVP front-runner with career-best averages of 31.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game, was not made available to the media.

The 46-34 Thunder are locked into the Western Conference’s sixth seed and a first-round playoff matchup with fellow MVP candidate James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Donovan said Westbrook decided that being as fresh as possible for the playoffs was more important than playing all 82 games.

“I mean, he wants to play,” Donovan said. “I think he understands big picture. We have two games left. We know what we’re doing in the playoffs and who we’re playing against. I think he knows this is good for him. This is good for him physically. This is good for him to get a rest and have some time to make some decisions on tomorrow’s game with what we’re going to do with him. He’s a competitor, he wants to play, but he also knows there’s something bigger out there. I think taking this time is important.”

Tyronn Lue plans to keep LeBron James, Kyrie Irving on court until East locked up

CLEVELAND — All season, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said he would prioritize health over postseason seeding when it comes to managing his team. As the Cavs enter the last week before the playoffs begin, he’s trying to achieve both.

Lue said he intends to play both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving until Cleveland clinches the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Entering Friday night’s game against the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland held a 1 ½-game lead over the Boston Celtics for the East’s top spot with four games left to play, giving the Cavs a magic number of two to clinch.

While he wants to get Irving and James some rest once the seeding is determined, Lue plans to use the remainder of the regular season as a tune-up for JR Smith, Kevin Love and Kyle Korver — all of whom missed significant chunks of time in the second half of the season because of injury.

“If we can take care of business like we’re supposed to, I think that we’d like LeBron and Kyrie to get some rest,” Lue said. “I think JR and Korver and Kevin and those guys should play a little bit because they’ve been out for so long and just try to keep JR’s rhythm and establish Kevin’s rhythm and the same thing with Kyle. So the most important guys right now are Kyrie and LeBron, just trying to get those guys some rest if we can.”

That could mean that James will sit out Monday’s road game against the Miami Heat on the second night of a back-to-back, where he has already sat out two of the past three meetings at American Airlines Arena against his former team.

Last season, James sat out two of the Cavs’ final four games before the playoffs. The season before that, it was two out of the Cavs’ final three games.

Lue added that he would like to see injured center Tristan Thompson, out for the second consecutive game because of a sprained right thumb, on the court again before the playoffs begin. Thompson will be re-evaluated following the Atlanta game to determine when he will be available to return.

“Depends on how he feels,” Lue said. “If he feels good, I think he should get a game or two just to get some kind of feel. Missing the last five games would be tough trying to get him back out there, but we’ll see.”

LeBron James passes Shaquille O’Neal for 7th on NBA’s career scoring list

Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James has passed Shaquille O’Neal for seventh place on the NBA’s career scoring list.

James came into Thursday’s game against the Chicago Bulls with 28,573 points in 14 seasons with Cleveland and Miami.

He needed 23 points to tie O’Neal and did that when he scored on a layup with 7:23 left in the game. James took sole possession of seventh place when he hit the first free throw after getting fouled on a 3-point attempt with 4:28 left.

Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki is sixth with 30,181 points.