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Steve Aschburner

LeBron James has gotten a lot of rest lately. Good thing the playoffs start soon.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

To play or not to play? And then, how much?

Posted Apr 12 2010 7:30PM

Fewer minutes now equal more victories later, or something counter-intuitive like that. That is the presumed equation certain teams have been promulgating, the same one with which other clubs have been grappling, and it all has sprinkled a little late drama onto the dwindling days of the NBA regular season.

Cleveland's LeBron James sits, ticket buyers moan, beleaguered opponents perk up and the Cavaliers lose three in a row. Oh, Cleveland had the NBA's best record before this little self-inspired skid and still does, but no matter what happens in the Cavs' season finale at Atlanta Wednesday, they will finish the 2009-10 season having dropped at least three of four. Do that one week later and the franchise's sky would pretty much fall.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls had a minutes crisis of their own over the weekend that seemed to peel back a curtain on some issues between head coach Vinny Del Negro and the team's management. After center Joakim Noah played only 12 seconds, total, in the two overtime periods of Chicago's 127-116 loss at New Jersey Friday, Del Negro's apparent mishandling of some standing orders -- standing but malleable orders -- from his bosses about Noah's playing time bubbled to the surface.

It sounded confused enough, off what should have been approached by all involved on the Bulls' side as a must-win, damn-the-torpedoes game, to suggest that Del Negro's job security might endure only as long as his team's season or, maybe, postseason.

Welcome to that part of the NBA schedule when some teams have won enough, others can seem more worried about next year than this year, and several more are checking twice to make sure they've amassed a sufficient number of defeats. You know things are topsy-turvy when professional coaches, who are hard-wired otherwise, embrace concepts such as "meaningless losses" and "troublesome victories." As for the fans, caveat emptor isn't the new imported beer available on the suite level.

When the NBA schedulemaker way back in the summer offered up "Orlando at Cleveland" as an April 11 clash, he or they or it looked to be doing a crackerjack job of booking serious competition on the final weekend between two Eastern Conference powerhouses. By the time we all got to it, though, not so much. James sat out his third consecutive game, Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams got pulled before the fourth quarter as if it were an October game in Columbus and Shaquille O'Neal and Daniel Gibson already were out with injuries.

The result? A 98-92 Magic victory that pleased no one -- not the coaches, the players or the people in the stands. Oh, it was OK for the big picture with folks at the Q, if the value of rest is greater over the next two months than whatever damage might have come from Orlando experiencing victory on the Cavaliers' home court. If Cleveland can flip the proverbial switch Wednesday against the Hawks (or no later than this weekend against Chicago or Toronto) and resume as the league's winningest team, then all will be well. If not ...

That James did not play at all was consistent with Cavs coach Mike Brown's approach that began Thursday in Chicago, when the MVP favorite sat out a TNT game against a possible first-round foe. That Williams and Jamison were shut down after three quarters was a little less so, because I had asked Brown in Chicago about his views on no minutes vs. light minutes as a way of resting key players.

"The tough part when you say, 'I'm going to give this guy a light night' late in the season, everybody's human," Brown said. "Subconsciously, that person can go into the game thinking, 'I'm only going to play a few minutes, so I'm counting the minutes until I come out.' You don't want that to happen. That's when, knock on wood, injuries do happen. So to me, late in the season, I'd rather sit a guy out than play him 15 or 20 minutes."

That wasn't the situation Sunday -- Jamison played 29 minutes, Williams played 28 and neither had been told of a quota prior to tipoff. It was just that the game still was winnable after three quarters (Orlando 77, Cleveland 73) and coaches long have debated the idea that a few less minutes qualifies as real rest once a player is lathered up and ready to go.

The Bulls were at the other end of the minutes spectrum, with Del Negro adhering to a mandated limit on Noah's playing time Friday as a precaution against nagging plantar fasciitis that had cost the center 18 games. Problem was, general manager Gar Forman said afterward that Noah had been cleared to play more as the game stretched into overtime; on site at the Izod Center, Forman told reporters he called Bulls vice president John Paxson for clearance. Exiting late in regulation, Noah had logged 35 minutes, 39 seconds to that point.

"My interpretation of that was not to go play him three, four, five, six, 10 minutes and get him to 40, 45 minutes," Del Negro said, "but [to use him] if we needed him for a stop. ... I would have loved to have played him some more minutes, especially in the overtime. But that was my understanding. There was probably a llittle miscommunication there as well."

Not so on Sunday: Noah played 38 minutes 48 seconds and had 18 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists in the Bulls' potentially pivotal victory at Toronto. Still, miscommunication is an obvious pitfall when NBA players and coaches veer from their overriding mission: Play to win, period. Tonight. Every game. Worrying about a superstar's fatigue level a week into the future or a key performer's availability six months from now (or career six years from now) is not standard operating procedure, so it's no surprise when things get murky.

This doesn't even address the obligation teams might have to each other, if the outcome of their "high-level practice" might have an impact beyond their own R&R. For instance, James had 19, 13 and six against Toronto on April 6, compared to zero, zero and zero at Chicago on April 8. Cavs won the former, lost the latter, and the Raptors might find themselves edged out of the playoffs by one game.

Also, there is the obligation to fans who might have saved all year to finally attend one game, only to wind up with an understudy playing Nathan Lane's role that night. It happens, but no one likes it on Broadway and no one likes it in the NBA. Check that -- the Nets fans probably were thrilled that Noah was on the side cheering for most of the extra 10 minutes Friday. But even road fans don't like it when James or another marquee player "rests" on the night they have tickets.

All of which makes us grateful that the final week of the NBA regular season lasts just seven days.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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