LeBron James got plenty of rest Wednesday night, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, though not the kind the Miami Heat would have liked. After quickly picking up two fouls midway through the first quarter, Eric Spoelstra withheld James until the second quarter. Then, inexplicably, the Heat star picked up his next three fouls with just four minutes gone by in the third.
With five fouls, James was forced to sit by as his team’s lead evaporated and was unable to make up lost ground in the fourth quarter, as the Pacers went on to win and extend the Eastern Conference Finals to a sixth game.
It’s the longest a series had gone for the Heat this postseason, which may be a reflection of the state of the conference more than anything. But, after easily wrapping up the series Friday, Miami capped off its least stressful march to the Finals since uniting the Big Three in the 2010-11 season.
The brevity of the Heat’s playoff run this year is much needed and may play a key role in their Finals matchup against the Spurs.
Over the last four years, Miami’s core has undergone more punishment – physically and psychologically – than any other team in the league. In three straight Finals runs, the Heat has played over 100 games a season. By the end of this year’s playoffs, the Heat will have played an entire season’s worth of games more than teams that haven’t made the playoffs in that span. James will have played five seasons to Kevin Love’s four, for example, in the same amount of time.
Piling on top of that exhaustive workload, is the team’s responsibilities to international basketball in the summer. The three players the team is built around – James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade – each play a big part on Team USA. While their only real FIBA commitment over the last four years has been the 2012 London Games, it’s still an additional responsibility that most other players don’t have, preventing them from getting much needed rest.
Since joining the Heat, James has logged a ton of minutes, as have the other two of Miami’s trio, though to a lesser extent. This year is on pace to be his lowest in a Heat uniform at a modest 39.5 per game.
However, perhaps the most underrated reward for Miami’s playoff success this year is the rest players will get going into the Finals.
They’ve averaged just over 22 games per postseason the last three years, but will enter this year’s Finals with just 15 games played. It may only be a one or two game difference from years past, but take into consideration their potential Western Conference opponent.
The Spurs, led by Gregg Popovich, have done a great job of resting players throughout the season, but have had to play a much more grueling schedule to nab the No. 1 seed in the West than the Heat have to get the No. 2 in the East. The Spurs had one seven-game series in the first round and just finished a six-game series against the Thunder.
For a team that has played almost 400 games over the last four years, having the advantage of rested legs, and playing an opponent that emerges battered from the combative Western Conference, may prove a decisive edge for the Heat in the Finals.