Off night for LeBron James a reminder of the obligation for others to step up

CLEVELAND -- For a guy who fiercely guards against any perceived slippage in his game as he looks to maintain whatever truth is left to his, “I’m the best player in the world,” proclamation, there was no escaping the fact that LeBron James pretty much played like garbage Monday.

“Energy,” James said after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 96-88 loss to the Detroit Pistons. “We lacked energy today, starting with myself, all the way down to everybody else.”

He finished with just 12 points, tying his season low and breaking a stretch of 14 games with 20-plus points. James also coughed up a game-high six turnovers.

“Uncharacteristic turnovers from our team, but mostly me,” James said. “I probably should’ve had about 12 of them instead of six. I got to do a better job of that, concentration level.”

The good news for Cavs fans is that James’ night was much more of an aberration than it was a sign of imminent decline.

The bad news, or at least sobering news, is that the Cavs have yet to figure out a way to lift James up on an off night the way he does for his teammates when they struggle.

“As much expectations as he puts on himself, for us we still have to pick up his slack,” Kyrie Irving admitted. “We can’t put too much pressure on that guy. He does it every single night. One night he doesn’t have the legs and that’s fine. We just have to pick it up from everybody on the team.”

Kevin Love echoed the sentiment, while affirming James’ continued place in the game.

“He’s the best player in the world,” Love said. “He’s going to have nights off. It’s not going to happen a lot. It’s very seldom seen from him, but other guys got to step up regardless.”

The game revealed not only that Irving and Love’s 54 combined points were not enough to stop the Pistons from leading by double-digits for most of the night, but that Cavs coach Tyronn Lue originally planned to have James sit out to begin with.

"I was just talking to Griff in the back and I said, ‘I should have went with my gut’ because after yesterday’s game I wanted to sit LeBron,” Lue said of his conversation with general manager David Griffin. “I should have. I should have went with my gut, but I didn’t do it.”

Lue’s sharing that he was considering sitting James out on the second night of a back-to-back is significant for a couple of reasons. First off, it means the coach is backing off his post All-Star directive that he wanted the Cavs to clinch the No. 1 seed in the East before they started thinking about resting James. Secondly, it served as a stark reminder of the Cavs’ 3-11 record in games James has missed since he returned to Cleveland last season.

You take any team’s best player away and they’re probably going to struggle (this year’s Blake Griffin-less Los Angeles Clippers being a rare exception), but the Cavs are built to have plenty of talent beyond James.

Which brings us back to Monday’s loss and why it matters. No, James is not going to fall off a cliff anytime soon. Dominant will still be the operative adjective applied to his nightly output. But there will be games where the Cavs cannot count on James at all in the future when he rests (they have eight more sets of back-to-backs this season) and other games where he simply doesn’t have it (while there are mercifully no back-to-backs scheduled for the playoffs, James will be embarking on what he hopes will be his sixth-straight trip to the Finals -- exhaustion is a real factor to worry about).

James, a four-time MVP and two-time champion who harbors aspirations to be known as the very best to ever play the game of basketball, is understandably a proud man.

There is a reason he said he wanted to play against Detroit after giving his all against Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City the day before.

“Well, it’s a difference between being injured and hurt,” James said. “I’ve been hurt for a long time, probably about six years straight now. But if I’m injured I’ll sit, but I’m OK with having little nicks and pains and crannies, stuff of that nature comes with playing the game and being a professional.”

However, as proud as he is and as prepared as he stays to secure his position at the top of the sport, he offered a rare admission of vulnerability after the Detroit defeat.

“I felt fatigued last night and this morning when I woke up, but I was able to get a nap and kind of felt better when I got back here,” James said. “And also got a pregame warmup. Maybe if I could second (guess), if I could do it all over again, I probably wouldn’t have an on-the-court workout before tonight’s game, but I feel like I needed to activate my legs. But I definitely felt it on the floor, coming off the back-to-back, the energy we exposed yesterday, with us playing eight guys, you live and you learn.”

If anything, Monday’s game should have been a lesson for the rest of the Cavs about how good life with LeBron James on your side really is and why they should never take that for granted.

The next step in the Cavs’ evolution will be Irving and Love and the rest of the guys carrying James the way that James has carried the team up to this point.