One of the storylines from Monday's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals was fatigue. While the Boston Celtics played some 48 hours after winning Game 7 over the Philadelphia 76ers, the Miami Heat got a longer break between series after closing out the Indiana Pacers on Thursday. That's the last extended rest either team will get in this series, with games scheduled for every other day. Fresher legs may have helped the Heat track down 50/50 balls, allowing Miami to dominate the rebounding battle.
There's also evidence to suggest rest may have been a factor in LeBron James' dominant Game 1. James' 32-point, 13-rebound effort was nothing new--as ESPN's Tom Haberstroh noted on Twitter, four of the seven 30-10 performances in this year's postseason have come courtesy of James. Still, James has clearly been at his best in the playoffs with more rest between games. Three of his four 30-10 games have come with more than two days between games, and James has averaged 32.4 points per game with at least three days between games, as opposed to a more pedestrian 25.4 ppg when playing every other day.
Let's take a more detailed look at James' splits by rest:
Rest 2P% FTA% R40 A40 TO40 P40 GS40
2 .570 .244 7.6 6.2 2.5 24.6 21.0
3 .478 .400 9.5 6.2 5.5 31.8 23.8
4 .618 .400 10.8 3.7 2.0 32.3 28.8
James' scoring and rebounding both increase on a per-minute basis with more rest. We also see indication of different playing styles. A rested James gets to the basket more frequently, drawing fouls and ending up on the free throw line. When more fatigued, James tends to be more of a playmaker, whereas he's thinking score-first when he is as well-rested as he was in Game 1. The result is that James' best performances in terms of John Hollinger's Game Score per 40 minutes have come when games are scheduled at least four days apart (including the playoff opener in this group). His worst have come playing every other day.
This line of analysis might seem a bit obvious--Player better with more rest! Film at 11!--but there's a tendency to think of James, because of his size and his athletic gifts, as immune to fatigue. Certainly, he's proven capable of playing more than most mortals. James has averaged at least 40 minutes in every playoff run of his career; this year's 40.5 mpg is the fewest he's ever averaged, though it figures to edge upward as Miami advances in the playoffs. James has averaged 43-plus minutes over at least 10 games three times (2006, 2007 and 2011). The only other player to match that feat over the same span is Elton Brand for the 2006 Clippers.
The more intriguing question is one that is difficult to answer to any degree of satisfaction: What kind of toll do these heavy minutes take on James over time? For all the psychoanalysis of James' play in season-ending losses to Boston in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals and Dallas in last year's NBA Finals, running out of gas is an equally plausible explanation. James' best Game Score in the Finals was the opener, with four days between games; his two worst performances came playing every other day.
Overall, James' 2011 playoff run did not display the same kind of trend. He actually played slightly better in terms of game score per 40 minutes (18.1) in games with two days between than three (17.9) or four or more (16.8). In 2010, by contrast, James was much better with additional rest. His game score per 40 minutes playing every other day (18.7) was far worse than with three days between games (a stunning 35.3, albeit over just two games) or four or more (28.6). In that loss to the Celtics, James scored 30-plus points twice: Game 1, after three days off, and Game 3, when the teams randomly had three days off. James' poor conclusion to the series came after the schedule switched to every other day.
There is no guarantee something similar will happen as this series continues. In last year's meeting with Boston, for example, James delivered terrific performances on short rest in Games 4 and 5 to help knock the Celtics out. Still, as Boston looks for reason to hope the outcome of this series will be different than Game 1, the possibility that James will be unable to maintain this level of play looms large.
This data should also serve as something of a caution to Erik Spoelstra. The more rest he can get James, the better. That's where Chris Bosh's return could be key for the Heat. With Bosh in the lineup, James topped 40 minutes just twice in the opening round against the New York Knicks and peaked at 41.5 minutes; he averaged more minutes than that (42.2) against the Pacers and started the conference finals with his second-longest outing of this postseason, playing the entire second half before leaving with the victory in hand. Beating the Celtics will be trickier than dispatching of the Knicks, certainly, but Bosh's presence would give Miami a second creator on the floor when James rests and keep the MVP from having to back up power forward in addition to his duties on the perimeter.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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