DETROIT — Following the Cleveland Cavaliers’ most complete win of the season, a 116-88 rout of a Detroit Pistons team that came into Monday night with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue wanted no part of the implications of LeBron James playing a season-low 27 minutes in the victory.
“I hear about that all the time,” a somewhat perturbed Lue said. “I played with Michael Jordan when he was 39, he played 37 minutes a night. Karl Malone was 37, played 38 minutes a night, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe [Bryant]. Everybody’s built different. If you’re one of the greats, sometimes you’ve got to play, sometimes you get rest like tonight.”
James, who turns 33 next month, came into the night leading the NBA in both total minutes played as well as minutes played per game. His closest competition in minutes per game, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, turns 23 next month.
Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green made James’ minutes a talking point last week when he told USA Today, “that would be more of my concern if I’m a Cavs fan or somebody with the Cavs or a player, is like, ‘Man, he’s been playing a lot of 40-minute [nights] and it’s only Nov. 12,'” Green said. He added of James: “He’s superhuman, but eventually his superhuman powers go away.”
James initially agreed with Green, telling Cleveland.com last week, “Draymond’s right. … We want to get those minutes down for sure. But as of right now, we’ve had two point guards out and we’ve had some different lineup changes, so, I’ve had to play more minutes than I would like, and more minutes than my teammates would like me to have.”
After scoring 18 points and adding eight assists with zero turnovers (the first time all season he didn’t cough one up, as he has been averaging a career-high 4.7 turnovers per game) before checking out for good with 1:43 remaining in the third quarter and the Cavs up by 37 points, James backed off his stance about his minutes needing monitoring.
“You make so much a big thing about my minutes,” James said. “It’s not a huge issue. But at the end of the day, when we can get a win like this, everybody benefits from it. Not just me. Everybody.”
It was just the 16th time in James’ 15-year career that he logged 27 minutes or less in a game, according to BasketballReference.com. Still, with two more minutes played, James will move past Shaquille O’Neal for 24th on the all-time minutes played list in the regular season. The last time a player led the league in total minutes and won a championship in the same season was Norm Nixon back in 1979-80 with the Los Angeles Lakers.
When a reporter suggested to Lue that his favorite questions involved James’ minutes, he quipped back, “love it,” and ended his postgame news conference. As Lue made his way down the hallway, he turned back to the group of reporters who regularly cover the team and encouraged them to “look it up” for themselves, rattling off a few more names of all-time greats in the process.
Indeed, Lue’s numbers check out. Yet only two of the players he mentioned — a 32-year-old Abdul-Jabbar playing 38.3 minutes per game in 1979-80, and a 35-year-old Wilt Chamberlain playing 42.3 minutes per game in 1971-72 — went on to win the championship playing that many minutes at James’ age. In fact, when Bryant played 38.6 minutes per game as a 34-year-old in 2012-13, his season ended prematurely when he tore his Achilles tendon.
The Cavs, now riding a five-game win streak to improve to 10-7 after beginning the season just 3-5, were much more willing to talk about their recent string of success despite four rotation players — Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Isaiah Thomas — being out because of injury.
“I just wanted to keep the pedal down,” James said of the Cavs taking a 27-point halftime lead and growing it to as many as 39 before calling off the dogs. “We haven’t had a win like this in a very long time. Come out sometimes in the third quarter and we get slow starts and teams get back into it. But today we just kept it going. It’s a pretty big step for us.”
“Over the last six or seven games we’ve started to come together offensively and defensively, moving the basketball, making the extra pass,” he said after the Cavs held the Pistons to an opponent’s season-low 88 points while tying their season high as a team with 28 assists. “That’s what we’re capable of doing when we play the right way.”
Cleveland also tied a season high with 16 made 3-pointers, shooting 48.5 percent from deep.
“It just felt like us,” said Kevin Love. “There weren’t any lapses, there weren’t any letups throughout the game. … There were a lot of good things tonight that felt like or looked like the stuff we’re capable of out there on the floor. It was one of those games where we kind of put it all together.”