No Bosh means James has to play big
Will playing power forward at times wear out the newly crowned league MVP?
MIAMI -- LeBron James knew this wasn't going to be easy.
After fizzling out in the Finals last summer, James analyzed his game, looked at his team's roster and came to one conclusion: He had to play bigger.
He worked on his post game during a visit to Hakeem Olajuwon. He stayed in top physical shape during the lockout with a rigorous workout regimen. Lastly, he embraced the idea of possibly being the Heat's best big man outside of Chris Bosh.
With Bosh out indefinitely and the Heat losing Game 2 of their series with Indiana, James needs to be the Heat's best big man on the floor. But it's going to demand more energy from him.
"It's definitely a lot more taxing wrestling with the bigger guys," James said Tuesday before Game 2. "But I'm ready for the challenge."
Now that Bosh is out for the remainder of the series and the Heat surrendered their home-court advantage, there's no better time for James to come up big. James amassed 28 points, nine rebounds, six steals and five assists in 40 minutes in Game 2 while also playing significant time at power forward guarding David West.
As impressive as that stat line may be, James was noticeably passive in the final minutes, not to mention that he missed two critical free throws. Was he tired? That's a question only he knows the answer to, but before Tuesday's game James expressed some reservations about playing power forward full-time in Bosh's absence. He stopped short of saying he had concerns about fatigue.
"I wouldn't say 'concerned'," James said. "But hopefully I can get a few minutes here, a few minutes there (to rest), especially in the playoffs. I understand that 40 minutes in the playoffs is different than 40 minutes in the regular season. It's just how it is."
With backup power forward Udonis Haslem playing only 12 minutes, James was asked to body up West on the block on several occasions. At 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds, James has the size to pull it off, but he's also responsible for running the Heat's offense and leading the fast break. In essence, James has to play like a big man on one end and like a point guard on the other.
Defensively, James says, is where he burns the most energy.
"That's the biggest difference," he said. "When you're on the perimeter, there's more space. In the interior it's more cramped and physical than the perimeter. You have to prepare for it."
On Tuesday, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had the intention of getting James some rest in the fourth quarter, but ultimately he couldn't take his MVP off the floor while the Heat were fighting back from a nine-point deficit.
"I wish I could have gotten (James) a minute or two of rest in the fourth quarter, but because of the hole we dug there was no way to do it," Spoelstra said. "He'll never make an excuse."
Few players can effectively play multiple positions within a game, but this is what Spoelstra and Heat president Pat Riley envisioned when they constructed the team's roster and installed a high-octane system on both ends of the floor. Ideally, they would ride their versatility and athletically to a championship. And it all hinged on James' ability to play power forward at times.
But transitioning James from a small forward to a power forward was not easy. When Bosh was out for several games last season, James was often asked to replace him in the lineup. The results were disastrous at first.
"We monumentally struggled without Chris Bosh last year," Spoelstra said. "But we're way past all that. I know there will be storylines about it now, but this is 15 months of work."
Spoelstra's optimism wasn't pulled out of thin air. For a while last season, James and Dwyane Wade were a losing pair without Bosh on the floor. By late January during their first season playing together, the Heat were being outscored by an average of 11 points every 48 minutes when they played their two perennial MVP candidates on the court without Bosh. For reference, that's only slightly better than what the lowly Bobcats did this season. Simply put, it was a train wreck for most of the season.
Things have changed since then. The Heat were wildly successful in short bursts this season when the team downsized from the Big Three to the Big Two. Entering Tuesday's game, the Heat had beaten opponents by a whopping 17.1 points every 48 minutes -- a turnaround of about 28 points since January of last season. Although the sample size is the equivalent of only a few games, James and Wade had proved that they can win without Bosh if need be.
"Quite frankly, it was a big adjustment," Spoelstra said of James' time at power forward last season. "It was the first extended minutes that LeBron had to play at the 4. But by the time we got to the playoffs last season, he had played enough minutes at the 4 where he was feeling comfortable and he was starting to see that this was a dynamic lineup change for us."
But the Game 2 loss to the Pacers was a painful reminder that the playoffs are a different animal. And for some reason, James' post game has been nearly nonexistent.
According to SynergySports, James nearly doubled his usage of post-up plays this season, going from 7.9 percent of his total offense last season to 13.8 percent this season. But in the playoffs, he's reverted to last season's levels. Currently, only 7.3 percent of his offense comes out of post-ups on the block.
In the final five minutes of Game 2, James worked primarily from the perimeter. His only post-up play during that span came at the 2:36 mark. He backed down Paul George on the right block, turned his right shoulder and missed the layup. He never went back to it again.
"We will not be able to have somebody be Chris Bosh," Spoelstra said. "He is a major component of what we do, but we have enough."
The question becomes whether James has enough left in the tank. Asked on Tuesday about his plans, James left little doubt that playing power forward is taking its toll.
"I'm resting," James said. "I'm going to rest. I got my 10,000 reps in at this point. Try to get some rest and get ready on Thursday."