Remember the 2015 Finals? Kyrie Irving got injured, Kevin Love missed the whole series, and so LeBron James had to take the court with the likes of Matthew Dellavedova on a coffee binge, an empty bag of Lay’s chips, a childhood stuffed animal, and a rock he found out in the parking lot. Timofey Mozgov led all non-LeBron Cavs in scoring, and still LeBron dragged them to two wins. He’s got more help now, but, obviously, so do the Warriors. The upshot is basic and increasingly clear: When LeBron is in, his team can hang with anyone. When he’s out, it’s a laugher. And he cannot always be in without the risk of running him into the ground.
James put up 39-11-9 in the Warriors’ 118-113 Game 3 win, and here are two related stats that tell a big chunk of the story:
1) James sat for the final 1:49 of the first quarter, leaving with the Cavs up two. Golden State immediately went on a 10-0 run.
“I knew I had to give LeBron at least a two-minute blow in that first quarter,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said of that early rest for James that proved manna for the Warriors, “because in the second half he might not get a blow.”
2) James played 45 minutes and 31 seconds, and was +7. Cleveland lost by five.
The math here is simple, and grim, and inescapable. The Warriors have more scorers and better defenders, and can turn to different lineups and schemes and focal points when one is unavailable or not working, and can generally ride out the brief periods when things aren’t going their way.
The Cavaliers have one path to success: LeBron James. When James was out last night, even for the shortest of periods, everything fell apart immediately and drastically. Rest is untenable. The other option was to play him for all but a couple of minutes and risk exhausting him by the crucial endgame. Overwork is untenable. Cleveland ended up getting the worst of both worlds.
Riding out the storm was precisely the Warriors’ gameplan last night. Steve Kerr spoke about deliberately forcing James and Kyrie Irving (who was very, very good for most of the game) to exhaust as much energy as possible, knowing that they couldn’t keep up that pace the entire time.
“They’re going to get tired,” Kerr recalled saying, speaking of James and Irving. “Stay in front of them. Force them into outside shots, if you can. Fatigue will play a role.
“We just felt like the way they play, Kyrie and LeBron had it going the whole game, but that’s pretty taxing to go one-on-one the whole game. Both those guys were amazing, 38 and 39 [points]. But that takes a lot out of you. And I think when you get guys playing 45, 44 minutes, basically attacking one-on-one the whole game, it’s — you hope eventually it’s going to take its toll.”
James denied that he was worn out by the end of the game, but the Warriors closed on an 11-0 run. Kevin Durant—four years younger, and working on five more minutes of rest than LeBron had—scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, including this legacy three to take the lead, right in the face of a flat-footed James.
This series is over. It was over before it began, because to even have the chance of keeping Cleveland in any given game, James needs to play the world’s absolute best basketball. And he is; he has. But he can’t do it for 48 minutes a night.
“[I]t’s physically and emotionally draining,” James said, “because I give everything to the game and want to put myself and my teammates in a position to be successful. So but I lay it all on the floor, and I did that tonight, gave everything that I had, both mentally and physically. So obviously I’m drained right now, ready to get home.”
He gets a day of rest. Then a whole summer.