After one of the most extraordinary, physically demanding NBA Finals performances ever, LeBron James wondered what the point is.
In an honest moment at his postgame press conference, LeBron admitted that he sometimes thinks he’d rather not make the playoffs at all than lose in the Finals. His full quote is great (h/t ASAP Sports):
“Well, of course you question it, especially when you get to this point. I always look at it would I rather not make the playoffs or lose in The Finals? I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve missed the playoffs twice. I lost in The Finals four times. I’m almost starting to be like I’d rather not even make the playoffs than to lose in The Finals. It would hurt a lot easier if I just didn’t make the playoffs and I didn’t have a shot at it.
“But then I lock back in and I start thinking about how fun it is to compete during the playoffs and the first round, the second round, and Eastern Conference Finals. If I’m lucky enough to get here again, it will be fun to do it.
But put my body through a lot, you know, but it’s the price for your body feeling this way for winning. Did I win? I didn’t win a championship, but I’ve done a lot of good things in this first year back, and hopefully I can continue it.”
A lot has been made about how physically exhausting this series has been for LeBron, and rightfully so. One sports scientist called LeBron’s workload “unfathomable,” and said the only thing that compares to it in sports is the Tour de France. He averaged 45.7 minutes per game, or to put it another way: he rested for an average of 2 minutes and 42 seconds per game. And that’s on top of the ~18,000 minutes he has played since 2010 — which is 2,000 more than anyone else in the NBA. Preparing his body for game-after-game became an around the clock undertaking.
So yeah, LeBron’s literal point that making it to the Finals takes a physical toll is taken.
The idea that LeBron’s getting at here — that there’s a point at which being mediocre is preferable to risking the pain it takes to be exceptional — is universal. But you almost never hear athletes actually say it. We expect athletes to say winning is everything. In that sense we hold them to a higher standard than ourselves.
At LeBron’s press conference, he was asked a question that athletes automatically respond with the “winning is everything” cliche. But this time, an exhausted LeBron just said what was actually in his head. In three weeks, he’d say of course I’d rather make the Finals than miss the playoffs. In that moment though, he wasn’t so sure, and it gives you a sense of the toll the series took on him.
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