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LeBron showing efficiency growth along with minutes increase

MINNEAPOLIS -- Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue glanced at a reporter's stat sheet in the locker room after his team won for the sixth time in seven tries this month, a controlling 116-108 effort over the Minnesota Timberwolves, and boasted about how well his star, LeBron James, played in 39 minutes.

Forty minutes, the reporter retorted, knowing how keenly aware Lue has been in recent weeks of the spotlight being shined on James' increased playing time this season.

At 39 minutes, 30 seconds, you round up, of course.

"Write it however you want," Lue said. "If you had a machine like him, you would ride him, too. Plus, he's about to get seven, eight days off."

Then Lue brought up James' 37.6 minutes-per-game average, which had him tied entering Tuesday with Toronto's Kyle Lowry for the league lead.

"I still got 0.4 minutes leeway," Lue said, referencing a conversation he had with James early in the season when the coach and four-time MVP said they would target 36-38 minutes for him this season. "I'm keeping that in my back pocket."

At the sound of his coach referencing his minutes and his machine-like body, James -- feet plunged in a bucket of ice with green cellophane holding ice packs in place on his back and both knees -- leaned back in his folding chair and knocked his knuckles against the wooden locker fa├žade behind him.

You knock on wood to avoid bad luck.

James and the Cavs have had enough of that already this season, from J.R. Smith's thumb to Kevin Love's knee, to surgeries required by Mo Williams and Chris Andersen, sapping the defending champs of their depth.

But the thing about James' minutes is it's only an issue if it becomes an issue. And right now, the man who has figured a way to manage his body through six consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, with many a USA Basketball summer sprinkled in for good measure, doesn't want to discuss it.

"I'll rest when I retire," James said with a heavy dose of defiance in his voice at Tuesday's shootaround. "As long as I'm in the lineup, we've got a chance. We good. Kev is out, Kev is out for an extended period of time. J.R. has been out, but I'm in the lineup. I'll be suiting up, we've got a chance against anybody. I ain't worried."

Maybe fretting about the future is more in line with human nature than appreciating the present -- the reason why you see more shows about apocalypse scenarios than about gratitude journaling -- but at some point, you can see from where James' exasperation is coming.

While his minutes are up slightly -- two more than he averaged last season -- his impact on the game in those extra 120 seconds has been exponential. His 8.8 assists per game are a career high, in this, his 14th season. His 53.3 percent mark from the field and 37.6 percent clip from 3 are his best numbers since his last season in Miami, when he and Dwyane Wade would have efficiency contests as a little game within the game to keep each another sharp.

And James is only getting better as the season progresses. In February, he is averaging 11.2 assists, shooting 61.2 percent from the field and 56 percent from 3. According to ESPN Stats & Information, there have been 92 months when James has played in at least two games. His field goal percentage this month ranks fourth out of 92. His 3-point percentage ranks second out of 92. And his assists? It’s the most he has ever distributed the ball in any calendar month since he entered the league nearly a decade and a half ago.

"For me it has been a good month so far and for our team -- after a not-so-good January," James said in reference to Cleveland's 7-8 record last month. "But at the end of the day the [All-Star] break is coming up. We've got one more game tomorrow, the break is coming up and I think we all can use it, including you guys. Just get ready for the later stage of the season and prepare for the playoffs. I've always looked forward to after the break. It's my favorite part."

James will get some rest whether he wants it or not. Lue says he has identified several games in March during which he intends to keep James on the bench, though he wouldn't disclose the specific dates.

But that won't stop James from playing how he deems fit when he is on the floor, for however long it takes to do things as he did Tuesday -- 25 points on 10-for-14 shooting, 14 assists and eight rebounds -- to keep Cleveland climbing toward the start of the playoffs.

"What a time to be doing it then [with] us gearing up for getting ready for an extreme journey," Kyrie Irving said. "So, he's really, really, really, really locked in. Which I love and I'm just trying to be right there with him as best I can."

Irving didn't quite keep up with James against the Wolves, clocking out with 25 points and seven assists in 37 minutes.

Was James fine with how much he played?

"I'm good," James said, before turning it back on the reporter who asked him about how many minutes he logged. "Can you play 39? I'm good."