CLEVELAND—Picture Atlas with the world braced on his shoulders, and then picture someone gradually inflating the globe, day after day. Two options emerge: Atlas continues to impress everyone with his unprecedented strength, or the weight eventually becomes even too much for him to bear.
That's where LeBron James finds himself as the Cavaliers look to sweep the Hawks on Wednesday and claim their second Finals appearance in franchise history. As these playoffs have progressed, and as his teammates have missed time with injuries, James has steadily carried more and more on his shoulders. So far, he's made due just fine: Cleveland is 11-2 in the playoffs despite losing Kevin Love to a season-ending shoulder injury in the first round and losing Kyrie Irving to knee tendonitis for multiple games in the East finals.
But cracks appear to be developing. James was hobbling around the court down the stretch of Game 3 on Sunday, as he did his best to fight off cramping that has sidelined him multiple times over the course of his career. Although specifics on his health have been hard to pin down, James may also be dealing with knee and/or ankle issues. Cavaliers coach David Blatt said after Game 3 that James had played through "pain," adding Monday that his star player was dealing with "a number of things" after getting "banged up a little bit."
"I got extensive treatment," James said Monday, when asked whether he received an IV for his cramps after Game 3. "I'm not going to elaborate on exactly what I got. Right after the game, I started trying to prepare my body and get ready for Game 4. ... It gets to a point where you get sick and tired of seeing [trainer] Mike Mancias. He's almost moved in with me."
Shouldering a huge burden is nothing new for James, in general, but he's never really been asked to do anything quite like this. James' Game 3 against Atlanta was a perfect example: he produced a never-before-seen combination of 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists while taking an eye-popping 37 shots, the most he's ever taken in an NBA game and the most launched by any player in a playoff game since 2005.
Entering Game 4, James' postseason usage rate is 36.6, per NBA.com/stats, up significantly from his regular-season rate of 31.8. That rate leads the league during the 2015 playoffs (minimum: four games played), blowing away Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who is No. 2 at 30.8.
As this chart shows, the responsibility has increased at every step of the way for James, whose usage rate against the Hawks has been a staggering 41.3.
In comments Monday, James tried to downplay the impact of his health and fatigue issues, claiming that this is all par for the postseason course.
"It's the playoffs," James said. "The playoffs should take a toll on your body where you feel exhausted at the end of it. That's just how I play. That's how I've learned and am accustomed to playing in the postseason. You shouldn't feel great leaving a playoff game ever."
But James, 30, is currently on track to post a higher usage rate than any regular season or postseason during his illustrious career. Never before has he done quite this much, even during his "one-man army" first stint in Cleveland. His highest regular-season usage rate was 32.4 in 2008 and his highest postseason usage rate was 33.2 in 2009.
There have been costs to these developments: James has made mention of fatigue and "exhaustion," and his efficiency numbers have hit the skids. His Player Efficiency Rating of 24.3 is his lowest in the playoffs since 2011, and it's down considerably from the 31.1 mark he posted last year. James' shooting numbers have also nose-dived: his postseason 49.0 True Shooting Percentage is the lowest mark of his career, down from 57.7% in the regular season and his whopping 66.8% mark in the 2014 playoffs. James is shooting a paltry 16.1% on three-pointers in the playoffs, easily the worst mark of his career and the worst three-point percentage of any player in history with at least 55 postseason attempts. Finally, his 13.9 Turnover Percentage in the postseason is his worst mark since his playoff debut in 2006.
To get a better idea of exactly how this postseason has been different from previous years, here's a plot of James' usage rate against his True Shooting Percentage. The 2015 run sits all alone in the bottom right of the graph, showcasing a combination of burden and inefficiency previously unseen in James' career.
For now, these stand merely as warning signs as James tries to reach the Finals for a fifth consecutive year. But something almost certainly has to give here if James and company are going to win the first title in Cavaliers franchise history. James will either need more support—particularly from Irving, who is a game-time decision for Game 4—or he will somehow have to reverse these efficiency numbers.
Without significant help, expecting a major reversal in these numbers will be asking a lot, given James' growing pile of minutes played and the likelihood of a Finals date with the Warriors, who boast the NBA's No. 1 defense, an ultra-efficient offense, and a bevy of long, athletic wings to rotate against him. At some point, even Atlas must acknowledge the possibility that one straw too many could break his back.