Column: LeBron James is a 40-minute man again in Lakers OT win, but at what cost?
LeBron James’ expression was businesslike, almost serious, as he walked off the court at Staples Center on Wednesday night.
His lack of visible emotion was odd because he had every reason to rejoice after he had helped the Lakers extend their winning streak to a season-best six with his usual varied contributions: 25 points, six rebounds, seven assists, two steals, a game-tying three-point shot in the fourth quarter and an alert defensive play to tip the ball away on the Oklahoma City Thunder’s final possession in overtime.
He did all of this in his third consecutive overtime game, each a workload of 40-plus minutes, played in a span of five nights. It’s the first time he has clocked 40 or more minutes in three consecutive regular-season games since January 2017 while he was with Cleveland. He’s doing it now at age 36 in a compressed season that feels like it began 10 minutes after the Lakers emerged from the NBA’s playoff bubble with their 17th championship.
Can’t a guy get a much-deserved rest once in a while?
“He told me he liked it that he played three overtime games,” guard Dennis Schroder said during a video interview after the Lakers had pulled out a 114-113 overtime victory over the undermanned but spirited Thunder.
“He said he’s liking it. Of course, everybody is going to be a little tired, but it’s always good to get the W.”
The Lakers claw back to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in overtime 114-113 on Wednesday at Staples Center.
This segment of the schedule, starting with the Lakers’ double-overtime victory over Detroit last Saturday and carrying through a home game on Friday against Memphis, figured to be an ideal time to trim James’ minutes and rest him during the fourth quarter once or twice. It has turned out to be a challenge for the Lakers and no leisurely laugher for James. They have to hope they don’t later regret he had to play such heavy minutes in order to beat Detroit, one of the NBA’s worst teams, and the rebuilding, sub-.500 Thunder twice.
The Lakers are in a congested stretch in which they’ll play 15 games in 28 days — on Feb. 4 they began playing every other day, a pattern that will continue the rest of the month. They’re scheduled to play back-to-back games at Phoenix and Sacramento before the NBA takes a break to play an All-Star game that few players are excited about attending while traveling requires extensive safety precautions and large gatherings still pose potential health risks.
Coach Frank Vogel, asked before Wednesday’s game about James’ growing workload, said the team wants “to be responsible with his minutes at all times.” That noble idea went out the window a few hours later when the Lakers, minus Anthony Davis (Achilles tendonosis) and Alex Caruso (sore hand), got off to a painfully slow shooting start against the Thunder, who had only eight players available because of their own injury woes.
The Lakers had to chase the Thunder most of the night, catching them in the fourth quarter and holding them off in overtime thanks to James’ deflection of Kenrich Williams’ inbound pass. “He made several defensive plays to be honest with you,” Vogel said. “He’s really leading the charge, taking the matchup of [Al] Horford in certain situations…..
“But that’s what Bron does. Bron does it on both sides of the ball. That’s why he’s probably going to be this year’s MVP, carrying the load offensively and quarterbacking the defense — the No. 1 defense in the league — and taking these tough assignments and making these tough plays down the stretch. He’s playing terrific.”
James’ legendary fitness regimen and remarkable intelligence on the court have enabled him to keep the years at bay and post numbers that are amazingly close to his performance last season. He’s averaging 25.5 points per game, compared with 25.3 in 67 regular-season games in 2019-20, while averaging 34.7 minutes, compared with 34.6 last season. Until the Lakers’ double-overtime game against Detroit he hadn’t played 40 minutes in a game this season. Now, he has played three in a row.
He certainly appears superhuman in most games, but reducing his minutes might be beneficial to him later and to the Lakers’ hopes of repeating as champions.
“There’s always concern, but his body has been feeling good,” Vogel said. “These aren’t the scripted plans, to go to overtime each night and get him up to 40 minutes, but he’s going to be in there in those situations to win the game and we’ll rest him after the game by giving him off from media. We’ll tell him he doesn’t have to do media and give him the rest necessary after tonight’s game,” Vogel said, adding a laugh.
“We’ll continue to evaluate how he’s feeling, his workload, on a game-by-game basis and make decisions on a game-by-game basis.”
James took a rare night off from participating in postgame interviews and said through a team official he was fine, and that he’s always fine when the Lakers win. Teammate Kyle Kuzma said he doesn’t think James has looked tired.
“You heard from him, being tired is in your head. You put your mind to it,” Kuzma said. “That’s always been his mind-set through his unbelievable career.”
So far, James’ mind and body have stayed strong. But giving him a rest now would go a long way to keeping him strong in body and mind in the playoffs.
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