If there's a number that explains the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2-1 lead against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, it might be found in the telemetry of a space shuttle launch rather than the box scores from the games.
During ascent, the shuttle's main engines used to throttle up to 104.5 percent of capacity. That didn't make sense to me when I watched the liftoffs. If they're at maximum, wouldn't that be 100 percent? It turned out that upgrades to the engine components over the course of the shuttle program improved performance, but NASA never bothered to change the baseline measurements.
So if rocket scientists could accept 104.5 percent as a legitimate standard, is it possible for us to validate the old athlete cliché of giving 110 percent? Because the statistical evidence says the Cavaliers are exceeding their limits.
LeBron James' 41 points per game in the NBA Finals represent 137 percent of his scoring average of 29.9 points in the 2015 playoffs. Matthew Dellavedova's 9.7 points per game in the Finals is 129 percent of his playoff average of 7.5. Tristan Thompson's rebound average of 14 per game is 132 percent of his playoff average of 10.6. And Iman Shumpert's 3.3 steals per game are 236 percent of his playoff average of 1.4.
You get the idea.
"You just try to give everything that you have to your teammates and live with the results," James said.
The legendary John Wooden would not have called the Cavaliers overachievers, because he didn't believe in the concept of overachieving. No one can do more than he is capable of doing, Wooden insisted. If that's the case, it leads us to a concept even harder to grasp than a rocket engine at 104.5 percent: We have underrated LeBron James.
No one thought going into the series that James would score more through three games than anyone in NBA Finals history, and 123 points later, he has. If he's exceeding expectations, then Wooden would tell you it's your fault for setting the bar too low.
Maybe it's not that LeBron and Cavs are overachieving, it's that James isn't allowing anyone to underachieve. If you're like Allen Iverson and struggle with the nebulous concept of a star making his teammates better, we might be seeing tangible evidence that it's possible. James has the undrafted Dellavedova running stride-for-stride with the MVP, Stephen Curry. He has Timofey Mozgov looking like the last of the NBA's true big men. He has J.R. Smith shooting when open, not just when on the court.
Smith actually authored a pretty good dissertation on the thin line between giving extra effort without exceeding the boundaries of your role, and it gets back to No. 23.
"Fortunately, we don't have to do too much," Smith said. " We've got a pretty good guy in LeBron on our team who is a stat-stuffer. So like I said, we just try to stay within ourselves and shoot shots that we normally shoot and play defense how we know we're capable of, and everything else will take care of itself."
James also sets the standard for effort, logging an average of 47.3 minutes per game in the series. And it's here where all of this extra energy the Cavaliers are losing could come back at them. Eight players have played 98 percent of the available minutes in the Finals. The Warriors have used a different mix of 10 players per game.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr thought the depth advantage played a role in the Warriors erasing an 11-point deficit in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter to force overtime in Game 2, and in nearly coming back from a 20-point deficit in the second half of Game 3.
"It's been our strength all year, and we've got to keep throwing bodies out there," Kerr said. "Over the course of seven games, I'm confident that that will have an effect."
The most likely moment would come in Game 4, the only time this series that the teams play a third game in five days. Dellavedova cramped up to the point he had to be taken to the hospital after Game 3; he brought two cups with him to the interview room as part of his ongoing hydration efforts Wednesday. James, meanwhile, looked as if he was between naps.
"You guys can see that I'm not getting much sleep right now, but I'm OK with that," James said. "I'm OK with not sleeping to be able to prepare myself and mentally keep myself intact on what's the main objective for me right now, and that is to make sure that my guys are laser sharp, get myself mentally prepared, physically prepared to go out and battle."
Andre Iguodala has been the Warriors' most effective defender against LeBron, and he sees the way LeBron is getting himself through those heavy minutes.
"I think he's doing a good job of being smart when he's choosing his attack points and when he's trying to conserve energy," Iguodala said. "He's playing inside, outside, trying to get to the line, mixing it up a bit."
Space shuttle launches mixed it up a bit as well. About 30 seconds after liftoff, the main engines would throttle down to around 70 percent capacity to reduce the strain on the orbiter as it approached the sound barrier. Ten seconds after hitting Mach 1, the engines got back to 104.5 percent, sending the shuttle and everyone aboard it into space. Reaching the highest elevations always comes down to maximum output, regardless of how it's measured.