- In his 15th NBA season, LeBron James’s workload is unlike any superstar before him. Will he have enough in the tank for the Finals?
BOSTON – Consider: 3,768 minutes.
That’s 86,400 seconds. That’s a little more than two-and-a-half days. Sound can travel about 17,000 miles in that time. Light travels about 11,178,000 miles in one minute, and you can do the rest of that math because a) it will turn my brain to stone, and b) it will turn this column into the opening number of an interplanetary performance of Rent. But still, damn, 3,768 minutes.
That’s how much basketball LeBron James has played this season so far for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and that includes the full 48 minutes he played on Sunday night when he came into the TDNorth Garden and hauled his motley bunch of teammates to his eighth straight appearance in the NBA Finals. Going into Sunday night’s Game Seven, he had played nearly 400 more minutes than had the player who played the second-most minutes. The second-most minutes were played by Jrue Holiday of the New Orleans Pelicans, who is 27 years old. James is 33 years old. He has played 114 minutes of basketball this season for every year of his life. And he is not done yet. Not by a long shot.
“It’s what’s been asked of me, and I’ve just had to try and figure it out,” he said, after pushing his team through an ungainly rockfight to an 87-79 victory. “I can’t really compare it to other seasons because I can only think about this one in the present. It was asked of me tonight to play the whole game and I just tried to figure it out, how I can get through it.
“Through our timeouts, you know, I was able to catch my breath. Halftime, I didn’t come out and warm up because that was my time to recalibrate and catch my wind again. It’s what’s been asked of me from this ballclub. I’m the leader of this team, and I’m going to give it what I’ve got. My teammates, they respect that.
“It’s now six seasons in one and I guess this is the last chapter for our team. It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been Cedar Point. Sorry for you guys who don’t know much about Cedar Point, but it’s been a roller-coaster. It’s been good. It’s been bad. It’s been roses. It’s been thorns in the roses. It’s been everything you can ask for. It’s been one of the more challenging seasons I’ve had, but, like I told you guys, right before the break, I kind of reset my mindset on this is the season, and let’s try to make the most of it.”
On Sunday, James not only faced the Celtics with a Cleveland roster that was considered by many people around the league as one step above a tag sale, but also without the team’s putative second star, Kevin Love, who was lost to the Cavaliers with a concussion sustained in a collision with Boston’s Jayson Tatum in the sixth game.
He put up his customary scoreline in these situations—35 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists. And he got all the help he needed from Jeff Green, who scored 19, and who was open much of the night because of the Mixmaster defense the Celtics put on James. “This year,” Green said, “I learned possibly everything. Man, alongside one of the best players that ever played this game, every day in the gym, and I’m by his side. I’m working out with him. I’m getting up shots. I’m seeing first-hand what it takes to be great.”
“He’s unbelievable,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens, who finally reached the end of his book of spells on Sunday night. “I think we’ve played now until May 25th and May 27th the last two years, and we started on September 25th. That’s every day—every day that you’re totally focused on this, and he’s gone past that eight straight times. It’s ridiculous and he does it at that level and with the pressure, the scrutiny. None of that matters. [We’ve had] multiple games now in TD Garden, held them under 100, three games in the 80’s. but he still scored 35. It’s a joke.”
We harp (a bit) James’s age, and we harp (a bit) on his playing time, also because age was a huge factor on Sunday night. For the first time in the playoffs, and at the very worst time, the Celtics played like a very young and inexperienced team.
The abiding image of the Boston offense—with the exception of Tatum, who was good enough to get a lingering embrace from James when the game was over – is Terry Rozier jacking up a three-point shot with 17 seconds left on the shot clock and nobody under the basket to rebound, or Jaylen Brown, missing open jump shots with several teammates ready to rebound. Brown and Rozier were a combined 3-22 on their three-point attempts and Rozier, who was deadly against Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and in the first two games against Cleveland, took 10 three-pointers and missed them all, including one killer miss with Boston down five and 1:16 left in the game that James converted into a George Hill layup with a nifty halfcourt pass.
“I haven’t really processed that we’re going back to another Finals,” James said. “I know that’s where we’re headed and I commend my teammates and my coaching staff and everybody that put the work in, even some of our staff that is not in the limelight, behind the scenes. This was a complete team effort.”
He speaks with undeniable gravitas now, as he has for the past several seasons. There are moments, in fact, where you can see him 20 years down the line as the commissioner of the NBA. He has been outspoken on issues, on and off the court. (“On and off the court” is kind of an obsession with him. He made a point of commending both Tatum and Al Horford for the way they carried themselves “on and off the court.”) He understands stardom in a different way than say, Michael Jordan did, because he doesn’t husband it the way Jordan did. He has put his stardom to use, probably because he’s had it to confront for longer than practically anyone else of his generation.
If it seems like he’s been around forever, it’s only because he has been. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had about half-a-season of hype in college before they exploded onto the professional scene. Michael Jordan had a couple of years’ worth of highlights at North Carolina, and then he ended up as the third pick in the draft. But the hype on James started when he was halfway through high school and it’s been a freight train through his life ever since.
He became a star at home in Cleveland, and then he left, and became an international supervillain, at least along the shining banks of the Cuyahoga. He won in Miami. Then he came back and, with the cool consistency for which Cleveland fans are known throughout the world, the city embraced him even more tightly. (If fatted calf tasted good on rye bread, Slyman’s even might’ve subbed out its corned beef, at least for a while.) He got Cleveland a title, too and, still, so much of the speculation this season has been where he will end up next year, if he exercises the option he has in his contract.
Through all of that, he kept playing, piling up minutes, pushing the limits of exhaustion. Night after night. Minute after minutes. He’s always been like that but now it’s become flat-out preposterous. Cleveland needed every second of every minute he’s given them, and he’s given them 3,768 of them. If he gave them only 3,000 minutes, they don’t win on Sunday night. If he gave them only 2,000, they probably don’t make the playoffs.
By the inevitable comparison, and this is the only time we’ll be making it, because who in hell really knows what it means, when Michael Jordan was 33, he was in the middle of his second mid-career hiatus, having retired from the Chicago Bulls and having not yet signed for his NBA curtain call in Washington. James has not had the benefit of taking two sabbaticals the way Jordan did. You can make all the comparisons between the two of them that you want but there is no denying that James has been willing and able to play more basketball longer in his career than Jordan was.
“It’s been a satisfaction in the fact that I like to be successful,” James said. “But, more importantly, just the work I put into it. I mean, it’s an every-single-day work ethic that I have while I’m playing this game, while I have the ability to play this game at this level. I love the competition.
“It’s just me being healthy. I’ve been healthy throughout this run. I put a lot of work into my body, into my craft. It’s about being available to my teammates and being available to my franchise—the two franchises I’ve been with, throughout this run, that’s been more important to me than anything. It’s always being available. I’ll be available for at least four more games. And we’ll see what happens.”
Three thousand seven hundred sixty eight minutes.
How do you measure, measure a career?
You judge it by the next 48, and the 48 after that. And then you see what happens.