MIAMI -- No matter what they might've said later, when LeBron James told Erik Spoelstra he needed a rest at the start of the fourth quarter in Game 1 against the San Antonio Spurs, it came as a surprise.
Spoelstra is used to riding James without consequence this late in the season, regularly not giving him a breather in the second half of late-round playoff games. The Miami Heat coach has sometimes relayed the message he gives to James in such situations, telling him "you cannot get tired."
He'd planned to do it again or at least wait longer because Spoelstra got stuck in his rotation when James made his request, and he had to rest both James and Dwyane Wade to start the fourth quarter. Trust that was never part of the game plan.
"I had been accustomed to being able to start the fourth but the third quarter was so -- I was in the paint, defensive rebounding, I was closing out Kawhi Leonard on shooters," James said. "It took all in the tank from me in the third quarter. So I needed a little breather."
It isn't often James shows physical vulnerability, but that's what happened Thursday night as the Heat lost a fourth-quarter lead and went down 92-88 to the better-rested Spurs. James averaged 43 minutes in the series with the Indiana Pacers, the most in any seven-game stretch this season. But it was not out of the ordinary for this time of year.
He averaged 44 minutes in the Finals in each of the past two years, making the 42 he logged in Game 1 a relatively "light" night. Last year he had a bout of cramps during the Finals.
But there is no doubt he's showing some wear. Privately, James admitted to some that banging with David West in the fourth quarters of the Pacers series wore him down a bit. Now he's taken the rare step of admitting some fatigue. The team has been keeping an eye on it and James is stressing getting extra rest -- if that is possible -- in the two days before Sunday's Game 2.
It took all in the tank from me in the third quarter. So I needed a little breather.
"-- LeBron James, on needing a rest to start the fourth in Game 1
That includes extra hydration and some other high-tech recovery measures. But none of that is new for James, since he'd been doing that already. He's just fatigued from another long season and very little can be done about it at this point.
"It is tough. But it is what it is," James said. "I put myself in a position to try to do everything for this team, a little bit of everything, and put myself in a position to win. It's very challenging mentally, physically. But you have to figure out a way to just have will at this point of the season. There's not too many days left. There's no room for excuses."
With Wade going through hours of treatment on his ailing knee -- he repeatedly has declined to discuss just what he's having done, only saying it goes on into the "wee hours" -- James doesn't have room for complaining. Spoelstra, while he may be wary privately about the load he asks James to take on by defending everyone from power forwards to point guards, is giving no public wiggle room.
"Whatever it takes, that's my deal with LeBron," Spoelstra said. "He understands. Depending on the matchup, wherever we need it, we have 14 days left, whatever it takes. And at this point you weigh the risk-reward. But whatever we feel is best at that appropriate time."
Here's the risk-reward summation: Wade is hurting, Chris Bosh is slumping, Shane Battier is barely playing because of ineffectiveness, and neither Mario Chalmers nor Norris Cole is as effective on Tony Parker defensively in the clutch as James is even if he's gassed. This isn't about risk, it's about reality. The Heat are going to ride James no matter the consequences.
James averaged just under 38 minutes a game during the regular season, close to a career low. He was given a number of games off in March and April to rest up. It isn't that the Heat didn't think long-term, it's just that what is required of him is so demanding that six weeks of playoff games and a taxing conference finals have taken their toll.
In his first month with the Heat back in 2010, James rather infamously complained about the minutes Spoelstra was playing him. That's long in the past and in the years since it's more often been James asking not to come out of games, than him dropping hints about needing rest.
But it's the latter right now. James said he felt the entire team was still recovering from the Pacers series but really he seemed to be referring to himself. He even questioned how much chasing the quick and active Parker around might slow him down at the offensive end.
"I can see it on a few of our guys' faces," James said. "Felt a little fatigued, still a little banged up from that seven-game series."
When it was broached, Spoelstra kicked that crutch away on Friday. Which made it rather clear James should expect his minutes to do nothing but increase the rest of the way.
"There's no excuse at this point of the year," Spoelstra said. "We're mentally preparing for a long series. This is the final push, and regardless of how we've gotten here, we just have to be ready."