History Says Well-Rested Spurs Have NBA Finals Edge on Heat, Pacers

Dan LevyChief Writer IIIApril 12, 2017

Thanks to the NBA scheduling wizards, the San Antonio Spurs were up 2-0 on the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals a day before the East even began its best-of-seven series.

The Spurs handily dispatched the Grizzlies in four games, giving Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and the rest of the West's best some much-needed rest.

Now the lingering question becomes: Is there such a thing as…too much rest? 

The Spurs finished off the West finals on Monday, May 27—the day before Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers was played. With the NBA Finals slated to start on June 6, the Spurs will have 10 days between games, an eternity in the NBA—even in the NBA playoffs, which will run from April 20 to June 20 if the Finals go seven games.

Should the Eastern Conference Finals, locked at 2-2 after the Pacers' 99-92 victory in Game 4, go the full seven games, the Heat or Pacers will have just two days off between the final game of the conference finals and Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

With the East guaranteed to go at least six games, the earliest the Heat or Pacers could win the series is June 1, giving the Spurs at least an additional five days off before the Finals begin. 

So, will the Spurs feel rejuvenated after the rest, or struggle with playoff rust?  

If history is any indication, San Antonio should greatly benefit from the time off in the playoffs, and the longer the series goes in the East, the better it will be for the aging Western champions.

Looking at the NBA playoffs for the last 16 seasons—since future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan was selected first overall by the Spurs, thereby changing the course of NBA history—the numbers show that extra time off is usually a good thing.

Rest, it seems, is more important than rust.

Heading into this year's conference finals, there had been 28 NBA playoff series in the last 16 years to feature at least one team that swept the previous round 4-0. Please note that the NBA switched to a seven-game first-round series from a five-game series after the 2002-03 season. For consistency, the following results do not factor in 3-0 sweeps.

Of those 28 series, three featured a pair of teams that both swept the previous round, thereby guaranteeing a victory and a loss for a team heading into the next round after a sweep. Leaving those three series aside and looking at the other 25 playoff matchups, the team heading into a playoff round after a four-game sweep won 16 of the 25 series.

Rest is important when it comes to the grind of the NBA playoffs, so it stands to reason that a well-rested team would be able to best handle the rigors of going deep into the NBA playoffs.

But let's not be naive. If a team is good enough to sweep another playoff opponent, it may be good enough to beat a team in the next round too. Rest may be important, but it's obviously not as important as talent.

In most playoff scenarios, the better team wins, and the really good teams usually get out of the early rounds with very few losses. Still, it's fascinating to see how sweeping teams do against those that get stuck in long series, and how playoff rest really does trump any potential layoff rust when teams have played significantly fewer minutes heading into a series.

  • Of the 19 playoff-series wins by a team coming off a playoff sweep, three were against teams that also swept the previous series, one was against a team that won a five-game series, eight were against teams that went six games and seven were against teams that went a full seven games. 
  • Of the 12 playoff-series losses by a team coming off a playoff sweep, three were against teams that had also swept, four were against teams that won a five-game series, three came against teams that went six games and two were against teams that went a full seven.

Combining those wins and loses makes the numbers seem even more striking.

  • Since the 1997-98 season, teams coming off a four-game playoff sweep are 3-3 against teams that also swept, 1-4 against teams that dispatched their previous opponent in five games, 8-3 against teams that previously went six games and 7-2 against teams that went the distance in the previous series.

The longer an opponent goes in the previous round, the better a team that just finished a sweep has fared in the NBA playoffs. The entire concept of rust, at least through a full best-of-seven-game series, is way overstated.

Now come the caveats. First, while the records for teams completing a sweep are incredible, they aren't as favorable the deeper teams get into the playoffs.

Over the last 16 seasons, teams coming off a conference finals sweep are just 2-2 in the NBA Finals when facing a team that went six or seven games. Entering this season, teams coming off a sweep in the second round were 3-3 in their respective conference finals when facing a team coming off a six- or seven-game series.

Oh, and let's not ignore the fact that rust within a series is still a possibility, and one that a team coming off a long hiatus should not ignore. There is little room for error in the NBA Finals, meaning it's imperative for teams to play their best basketball from the start of the series. An extended layoff could create a bit of early-series rust, for sure.

Take, for example, the Miami Heat this season, who dispatched the Milwaukee Bucks in four games then had to wait for the Chicago Bulls to beat Brooklyn in seven games. The Heat defeated the depleted Bulls in five, but lost the first game of that series after their longer-than-normal playoff break.

While the Spurs won the first game of their second-round series over Golden State after the Warriors went six games with the Denver Nuggets, the Spurs shot under 44 percent in a shocking Game 1 comeback victory and under 40 percent in the Game 2 loss.

San Antonio shot nearly 50 percent from the field in the four-game sweep of the Lakers before the Warriors series and shot better than 50 percent in Game 3 and Game 5, sandwiched around a terrible 35.5-percent performance in a Game 4 loss (rust, as it seems, is not always the excuse for poor shooting).

In truth, all the history in the world won't guarantee the Spurs more success in the NBA Finals against the Heat or Pacers. Still, that same history should afford those covering the Finals the ability to quickly dispel the old wives tale about teams letting rust get to them after a long layoff between playoff rounds.

Rust may be an issue early in the series, but the deeper the Finals go, the fresher the Spurs should feel, no matter which team they play. Certainly, San Antonio is hoping for the Eastern Conference Finals to go seven games, almost guaranteeing that rest will be a far bigger factor than rust.