In the regular season, LeBron James actually played well in the fourth quarter — he had the second highest fourth quarter PER in the league. Part of the reason is that the Heat’s rotation let him sit the first four to five minutes of the quarter and rest, then come in with real energy.
In the playoffs — especially the Eastern Conference Finals and Game 1 against Oklahoma City — there has been almost no rest for LeBron.
The result? In Game 1 it was a quiet 7 points on 2-for-6 shooting, with him settling for a lot of jumpers. After the game in the interview room, he looked and sounded tired.
In Game 2 the Heat are going to ask more of LeBron — he likely logs minutes defending Kevin Durant plus he needs to take on more of the offense if Dwyane Wade can’t — and he may well have to do it without rest. Here is what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, via Brian Windhorst at ESPN.
“We were able to manage his minutes pretty much at a career-low level for the majority of the regular season, and you get to this point, we have 12 days left, I know he has the mentality that he’ll do whatever it takes,” Spoelstra said. “I want him fresh so I’ll work to try to get him some rest, and ideally it won’t be 48, 53, whatever it is.”
Lack of rest isn’t going to fly as an excuse. Nor should it. But this is where the depth of the Thunder pays dividends — they can rest one or two of their “big three” at a time and not really suffer a huge drop off. When LeBron sits the Heat struggle right now. Do that for too long against the Thunder and the Heat will find themselves in a deep hole. The Thunder will be relentless.
It’s something to watch in Game 2 — can LeBron just get a few minutes of rest? How does that impact him when the game is on the line?
It’s just part of the huge mountain the Heat have to climb. And it is a steep one.
Draymond Green tells Kyrie Irving: ‘I know your moves’ (video)
At the season’s midway point, Rudy Gobert is probably the leader frontrunner in the Defensive Player of the Year race. Kawhi Leonard will have a say, and there is a lot of basketball yet to play, but Gobert anchors the NBA’s best defense and he is a force in the paint.
Just ask the Phoenix Suns.
Down three with 13 seconds left Monday night, the Suns wanted a three to tie, but when that was not easily open Eric Bledsoe decided to drive for two (then the Suns would foul and extend the game), he was cut off so Bledsoe dished to rookie Marquese Chriss, who went in for the layup — and found the long arms of Gobert. Blocked shot and game over.
Utah is for real, folks.
Three Things We Learned, Cavaliers/Warriors edition: What can we take away from Monday to NBA Finals?
The NBA goes big on Martin Luther King Jr. day — as they should — but if you missed the action because you were busy counting to 100,000 for no reason, we’ve got you covered with the key takeaways from the biggest game on the schedule.
And we’re doubling our usual three things we learned to six for a day.
Six things from Warriors’ thrashing of Cavaliers that could play out in NBA Finals. Nothing that happens in the regular season guarantees anything come the NBA playoffs, let alone the Finals. Last season’s 73-win Warriors were just the latest in a long line of teams to prove that. Which means we need to be careful reading much into Golden State’s thrashing of Cleveland on Martin Luther King Jr. day. The Finals are a little less than six months away — both of these teams will be different by then (the Cavaliers hope to have a healthy J.R. Smith and Kevin Love by then, for example). Remember, in January one year ago the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and how did the following Finals turn out?
However, when these teams meet some strategies are tested, little things in the game that we could see — or teams will need to at least account for — come the Finals meeting we all expect. Here are six things from Monday’s game that could well play out in June in the NBA Finals.
1) In the four straight wins the Cavaliers had in this series prior to Monday, they were very aggressive in defending Stephen Curry — they trapped him off picks, were physical, tried to pressure him into decisions to give up the ball, then when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams the Cavaliers help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. All of that made Curry passive — remember the guy floating on the perimeter taking just 11 shots on Christmas Day?
On Monday night Curry took that pressure in stride, attacked Kyrie Irving from the opening tip (remember Curry’s first possession he blew right by him), used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. In the first half, Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers. For the game Curry had 20 shots. If he can match that, or even come close, in the Finals, the Cavs are going to struggle to slow this offense down. Like every mortal team has.
2) In January 2016 the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and that was a critical step in the Cavaliers deciding they needed to let David Blatt go, hire Tyronn Lue, and make changes that put them on Golden State’s level. With Monday’s loss, one thing that was evident was the depth of playmaking options the Warriors have and how that can be difficult to guard. Cleveland has two playmakers right now, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Cavs’ GM David Griffin has talked about wanting to add playmakers, LeBron has called for a backup point guard, but it’s clear whatever position they could use to add another playmaker or two heading into the trade deadline.
3) Can Kevin Durant guard LeBron? Chris Haynes of ESPN with an interesting stat:
Christmas Day, LeBron James scored 10 points on 4-4 when Kevin Durant defended him. MLK Day, LeBron scored zero on 0-5 with Durant on him.
The Cavaliers were on the last night of a six-game, 12-day road trip — they were not at their best. LeBron clearly wasn’t. However, if KD can even do a reasonable job on LeBron — or can switch on to him without getting torched — the Warriors will be a lot more comfortable and have more options on defense.
4) How did Warriors handle Kyle Korver? They went right at him and made him play defense, which has never been a strong suit (to put it kindly). The Warriors have enough playmakers that whoever Korver was guarding just went at him, and it worked — particularly during the stretch that saw the Warriors first push their lead north of 20. Korver didn’t have a great shooting night, by June he likely is far more comfortable, but if the Warriors can expose him on the other end it will be hard to keep Korver on the court for extended periods.
5) When JaVale McGee checked in for the Warriors, Tyronn Lue countered with Channing Frye. JaVale is not a strong defender, doesn’t step out away from the basket if he can help it, and the Cavs saw an advantage. JaVale’s offense covered that in this game scoring inside, but it’s something to watch.
6)DeAndre Liggins is a good defender, but he’s more focused on-ball than off, and in the fourth quarter Klay Thompson torched him a few times making Liggins chase him off screens away from the ball. You can be sure Steve Kerr noticed and filed that away.