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Fran Blinebury

Like every coach around the NBA, Gregg Popovich is playing close attention to his players' minutes.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

The art of managing minutes a tough task in compact season

Posted Jan 27 2012 10:14AM

Under the best of circumstances an NBA head coach can feel like he's juggling chainsaws. But try to cram a 66-game schedule into a hair over four months and you're practically setting a guy up to lose a couple of fingers, if not a chunk of his mind.

"It's hard," admitted Gregg Popovich.

What he meant was, harder even than usual.

Take a look at the schedule that's packed tighter than your average overhead bin on a flight to Disney World and then factor in all of the wacky constant comings and goings of the 30 teams in the league and you have to wonder if everybody -- or anybody -- will make it to the end.

Pop does.

"What is it -- three games in three nights, four games in five, six in eight, seven in nine?" he asked. "Every night this season that's the case for somebody. So you've got to find your way to get through it."

With limited practice time, first-year Rockets coach Kevin McHale labeled the cramped season 'odd' as he tries to help Houston grow as a team.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

For every team it's meant far less practice time than usual. It's meant installing new offensive plays or defensive wrinkles during a morning shootaround or trying to do real teaching during a 30-minute film session at the arena prior to a game.

The result, of course, has been plenty of basketball that's looked about as crisp as a month-old bowl of potato chips, in many cases clueless and in some even star-less.

In two trips to Houston this season, 13-time All-Star and two-time MVP Tim Duncan played just two quarters. That's not because Duncan was hurt, just that Popovich is being even more scrupulous than ever with his 35-year-old big man due to the unrelenting, unforgiving schedule.

"That's a rule," he said. "I'm not going to let (Duncan) play four games in five nights. It's not going to happen."

While Popovich has been keeping a lid on Duncan's minutes for the past several seasons, it is the unusually difficult demands of the post-lockout pace that has pushed him to take such a drastic step.

"Coach Popovich has such a good feel for those guys," said Kevin McHale, the Rockets' first-year coach. "He's been around Timmy his entire career. I think sometimes you sense in players something they don't sense in themselves.

"I don't have that kind of feel. I don't know if I can accept that. Our young guys need to play. On the other hand, we've had a couple of practices where I've told some of our guys to take it easy and in a couple of cases, we've told some of them to stay at home and not even come near the gym. That's hard to do when you're trying to build a team.

"The oddest part is you're going over stuff in shootaround that you need to go over full speed to get timing down and there's just not time to do that. It's just an odd year. We need some practice time to take what we're learning and work against each other. If you want to work your sets and get better at it, you need to play offense-defense in 10-minute segments straight. Or running the same thing over and over, looking at your options. The offense gets better. The defense gets better. You don't have time to do that."

Scott Skiles says he would like to make accommodations in terms lessening minutes or thinking about nights off for players, but it's only a fantasy with a Bucks team that is below .500.

As much as Bucks coach Scott Skiles would like to, he says he can't afford the luxury of resting and benching his players.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

"We don't have that luxury," Skiles said. "I can see it if you're Oklahoma City. We're trying to look at the big picture too, but they're looking at the really, really big picture. We have to win games. Every game is critical. I've tried to be mindful of Brandon Jennings' minutes, but he's played well, so I've kinda left him out there."

A game, another game, a flight, two more back-to-back games. If it's Tuesday-it-must-be-Miami-or-Orlando-or-Houston-or-New Orleans. As Groucho Marx once sang: Hello, I must be going.

It is no surprise that the iconoclast Popovich has taken the boldest step yet to deal with the schedule squeeze, even in a season when he is already playing without the injured Manu Ginobili.

"It is more difficult to manage than usual because you have to constantly filter in how many minutes your players are playing and how many games you've just played and when is the last time you had a day off," he said. "It's a little easier with the regular schedule, obviously. You get some days off and it kind of takes care of itself to a certain degree or a large degree. But this year you don't have any of those respites that help you manage so you have to do things like we're doing."

"Tim...probably shouldn't be playing four games in five nights if I want him to be playing at the end of the year. So we bite the bullet. It doesn't matter who we're playing."

What matters is when you're playing and how you're playing -- in April or May or even June.

When Popovich made Duncan sit for the entire third and fourth quarters on the first trip into Houston this season, the Spurs were behind by 18 points and were playing their third game in four nights. He gave up that battle to look to the next one. When he scratched Duncan completely just last week, the Spurs were coming off a stunning home loss to Sacramento the night before.

"When you have a tough loss it exacerbates what you have to do," Popovich said. "But you do what you have to do. You can't say, 'We lost last night and we don't want to lose two in a row, so we better have him play.' It's like cutting your nose off to spite your face. It will bite you later, I believe. So he sits.

"It's tough to accept it. You have to be strong to make the decision and not fold. It would be easy to fold, I think. You can probably guess that Tim's not the happiest camper in the world sitting. But you have to do what you think is right and go from there."

From there, the Spurs went to New Orleans 48 hours later and Duncan looked like a 25 year old, scoring 28 points, grabbing seven rebounds and hitting 11 of 19 shots, including the game-winner on a baby sky hook with 1.4 seconds left.

"I never like it, I never think it's going to work," Duncan said. "Pop is a lot smarter in that respect."

Three months to go and you get the feeling the chainsaw juggling has just begun.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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

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