When NBA Playoff Teams Should Rest Stars
The San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics are two teams that have prioritized health over late-season victories in recent years. But NBA teams rarely have the luxury of resting their best players down the stretch.
This season, with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference wrapped up, the Miami Heat will have the opportunity. Yet with a historic winning streak on the line, the decision becomes more complicated.
Dwyane Wade could certainly use a few more games off before the playoffs.
He sat during Miami's most recent win over the Charlotte Bobcats to nurse a knee bruise. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra may have felt confident that his team could take down the Bobcats without their second-best player, but there aren't many NBA teams that represent guaranteed victories.
At some point, if the Heat give Wade (or LeBron James and Chris Bosh) any more nights of rest, they may be jeopardizing their chances of standing alone in the history books with 34—or more—consecutive wins.
Given how poorly Wade played in the postseason last year with a balky knee, however, it may be the only sensible move. After all, who is going to care about a streak if it isn't an appetizer to a championship entree?
If you ask Gregg Popovich, the determining factor would likely be obvious: health.
Fortunately for the Heat, they have been so dominant that they can actually treat the streak like it's the playoffs and, if they get to 34 straight, still have almost two weeks before the postseason begins. But that doesn't really matter if Wade, or others, need the time off now.
If Wade needs time off, Popovich would likely advise giving him time off.
Even while battling with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference last season, for instance, Popovich gave his stars time off. Tim Duncan sat during four of his team's final six games, and both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili skipped the final two.
Yet the Spurs still managed victories in each. In fact, they closed out the regular season playing arguably their best basketball of the season, ending on a 10-game winning streak in which they beat their opponents by an average of more than 17 points.
This success translated into the playoffs immediately.
San Antonio won its first 10 games of the postseason, sweeping the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers before taking a 2-0 series lead on the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. Oddly, the team then coughed up the next four, making a quick exit from what had otherwise looked to be one of the more impressive playoff runs in recent NBA history.
Some of their good start might have been a side effect of resting stars: It gives less-heralded players experience in games that matter.
Late last year, for example, in San Antonio's third game in three nights, Duncan sat out against the Sacramento Kings. It was a game that still mattered in terms of seeding. And the Spurs won—convincingly—as seven players, including Gary Neal with a team-high 17 points (on 8-of-9 shooting), scored in double figures.
Neal hadn't scored more points than that in a month-and-a-half. In the playoffs, he was a rock for Popovich, making 16 of the 36 three-point shots he took, good for a scorching 44.4 percent. Perhaps Neal shoots just as well without some extra freedom on the court late in the year, but it's hard to argue with Popovich's decision-making when his team went out and won its first 10 playoff games.
Doc Rivers is another coach who cares more about player rest than playoff seeding.
"Listen we’re not going to be a 1 seed, we know that, so we just want to be a seed," Rivers told Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston on Feb. 25. He added that the team's focus late in the year is "going to be health now for sure for us."
This year, that strategy makes plenty of sense.
The Celtics are not going to earn home-court advantage in the playoffs no matter how much they try. And while they may have a preference when it comes to its first-round matchup, Rivers is likely to be equally comfortable playing any of the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets.
Then again, resting stars has not always worked out for Boston.
In the 2010-11 season, for example, Rivers sat Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Shaquille O'Neal in Boston's second-to-last game. The Chicago Bulls were easily the best team in the East that year, but Rivers' team still had a shot to get the No. 2 seed.
Instead, the coach chose rest and relinquished home-court advantage in their soon-to-be second-round matchup with Miami.
At first, the decision looked sound. The Celtics blasted the New York Knicks in a four-game sweep in the first round and showed that they could win on the road, taking two victories in Madison Square Garden by a combined 29 points.
Then they had to face the Heat, the team to whom they conceded home-court advantage. The newly formed big three in South Beach quickly made it clear that playing in Miami was not like playing in New York.
Wade dropped 38 points (on 14-of-21 shooting) in a Game 1 win, while James poured in 35 (on 25 shots) to give his squad a 2-0 lead heading back to Boston. The Celtics did manage to win Game 3, but they were sent home for the summer after the Heat took the final two games of the series.
Perhaps the Celtics were just too old and too inferior to beat the Heat in any arena, but if they hadn't rested their starters down the stretch, they may have earned home-court advantage, and the series may have gone differently.
In the Western Conference, Popovich will likely have a familiar decision to make this season. His Spurs have a one-and-a-half game lead on the Thunder, and he is certain to want to ensure that Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are rested for a long playoff run.
He may not be able to guarantee both rest and home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs this time, however. So his choices down the stretch could give a lot of insight into whether he will always prioritize health or if playing in San Antonio is a bigger goal this season.
By comparison, Spoelstra should have more leeway in Miami.
His best-case scenario is about as rosy as any team could ever hope for: keep playing Wade until the Heat win 34 in a row; then give him—as well as James and Bosh—liberal time off during the final five games of the year.
After that, it should be a smooth path to the NBA Finals.
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