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As season grinds to a close, coaches wrestle with rest issues

As season grinds to a close, coaches wrestle with rest

POSTED: Apr 8, 2013 12:29 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


The Spurs are always concerned with getting Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan enough rest.

Gentlemen, charge your batteries.

This isn't just the cry in Indianapolis where, no, they aren't running a Prius 500 out at the Brickyard. This is the advice being urged throughout the NBA, overtly in some cases, covertly in many more as the regular season winds down. There may be disagreement over when the NBA's "dog days" are -- the flats of January? that dead zone soon after All-Star weekend? -- but there is no dispute that right here, right now is the dog-tired portion of the schedule.

No one wants to hear fatigue grumbles from young athletes earning millions of dollars for playing a game, traveling in luxury and devoting on average three or four hours a day to their livelihoods. But this stuff gets taken seriously by authorities not otherwise known as enablers or molly-coddlers. Like San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, whose history of resting key veterans when he (and not the NBA schedule-maker) sees fit had fans wondering, for instance, how the Spurs would approach their dicey back-to-back set with Miami Sunday (no Manu Ginobili) and at Memphis Monday

Like Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, too, who played Miami's minutes straight during the 27-game winning streak but sat down LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers at San Antonio Sunday, part of Spoelstra's effort to monitor appearances and workloads from now to the playoffs. The Heat still beat the Spurs, too, thanks to a late 3-pointer from the only member of the Big Three who suited up, Chris Bosh.

Said Wade: "We still have basketball to play and we have to play it when we're on the court. But I think guys need to take the opportunity, as well, to clear minds and clear their bodies and get ready for what we're put together for."

Such sermons have been preached everywhere in recent days:

Referring to his "three elderly gentlemen," a.k.a., Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry, Boston coach Doc Rivers sat down Pierce for a game at Charlotte March 12. The Celtics got smoked that night by 26 points, but Rivers didn't regret the move because the team was wrapping up a stretch of 10 road games in 13 overall and because Pierce was dragging. "I don't get a lot of kickback right now when I sit one of them," Rivers said of Boston's over-35 set. "It used to be you had to fight those guys." Lately, Garnett has been in the midst of a two-week recovery layoff.

New York coach Mike Woodson kicked himself for not backing off on Carmelo Anthony's minutes, despite the Knicks star's balky right knee. Anthony played 43 minutes, 11 more than Woodson had intended, to seal a victory at Toronto March 22. "This was a game that we had to go get," Woodson 'fessed up afterward. "I couldn't find a gap there to sit him. I feel bad about it, but hey, hopefully he'll sleep tonight, ice up and be ready to go tomorrow."

Houston's James Harden has played more than 40 minutes in 27 games but fewer than 30 only three times. Teammate Chandler Parson has topped 40 20 times. "The more minutes the better, if you ask me," Parsons told the Houston Chronicle. "Of course I'm going to be tired. Of course I'm going to be sore. But I wish I could play 48 minutes." Their coach, Kevin McHale, doesn't like that idea, even though he sometimes flirts with it. "You fight with getting them out sometimes and trying to get them enough rest," McHale said. "Part of me does say on that given night, 'Well, they're young. They'll be OK.' ... It doesn't sound like a lot, but when you play five or six extra minutes and multiply that by 80 games, that's a lot. That's like playing an extra 12 to 14 games in a season."

Popovich Pregame

Wait, did we see everywhere? Maybe not everywhere:

Chicago center Joakim Noah has played 40 or more minutes 26 times in 2012-13. In his first five NBA seasons combined, he'd done that only 21 times. After logging 41 in a March 2 victory over Brooklyn, Noah was only half-joking when he said: "What do you want me to say? Yeah, I'm tired, pretty tired. We've got a great coach [Tom Thibodeau] but he doesn't understand the whole rest thing yet, I don't think." Noah's minutes were at a career high 37.7 per game -- a 24 percent increase over last season -- until he got some rest the hard way, sitting since March 21 with a flare-up of plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

Denver's George Karl is another one who doesn't fret rest. At least not here (jockeying for position in the West) and now (final 10 games). "What I've been telling the team ... the [remaining] games, I don't want to hear about rest," Karl said. "I don't want to hear we're tired. I want our attitude to be the best basketball we've played all year, and if you don't want to do that then I'll play somebody else. I don't want to hear about, 'My body hurts, I'm sore' -- everybody plays the same amount of games and resting's not going to get us ready for the opportunities. If we had a bunch of 30-year-olds I might have a different opinion, but we have a bunch of 25-year-olds."

Popovich is the one who started the whole rest thing this season, as he seems to do most seasons now, precisely because he does have a bunch of 30-year-olds.

'Body Maintenance'

Back in November, just four weeks into the schedule but at the end of a six-game, nine-day trip, Popovich sent home four of his starters: Tim Duncan (36 years old), Manu Ginobili (35), Tony Parker (30) and Danny Green (25). That ninth day, though, was booked as a Thursday TNT game against a Miami team lolling at home with four off-days prior to San Antonio's visit.

As word of Popovich's decision spread, the Internet boiled over and so did NBA commissioner David Stern. He issued a formal rebuke even before tipoff and fined the Spurs $250,000. The game's outcome -- a narrow loss for the undermanned visitors to South Beach -- mattered little. Numerous fellow coaches and many fans sided with Pop's right to manage his team however he saw fit, while others aligned with Stern and his desire to protect the integrity and TV ratings of his product.

We're not here to re-try the case or assign any alleged ulterior motives. But Popovich takes issue with the label, often said with a smirk, attached to his roster management. This wasn't just about rest. And no, the more rested team doesn't necessarily have an advantage on a given night.

"That's too black and white," Popovich said. "It's about health and safety more than anything. If you have players that are a certain age or have certain dings combined with age, and you don't stay on top of that issue during the year, it's a moot point as to whether they have enough rest at the end of the year. What's important is, 'Are they there at the end of the year?'

"At the very end of the year, you can talk about rest a little bit. Like if you end the season with four [games] in five nights, well, it's ignorant to play those guys four in five nights. Because you're going into a playoff and you don't know if [the schedule has you] playing one day later or whenever. What we did was about health and safety so they're there and we have a shot at the end of the year."

Popovich has been monitoring his guys' workloads for much of the past decade -- Duncan last averaged more than 36 minutes in 2003-04 -- and started peeling back David Robinson's minutes soon after taking over as Spurs coach in 1996-97. The Spurs haven't reached The Finals since 2007, but the four-time NBA champions have stayed near the top as strong West contenders despite shifts in personnel and style.

Rationing minutes and games has paid off. Duncan and Parker have been together for 591 victories, fifth-most by a pair of teammates in history (Utah's John Stockton and Karl Malone rank No. 1 at 906.). Toss Ginobili into the mix and THEIR 457 victories as teammates also ranks fifth. (Boston's Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish top the trio list at 540). Duncan ranks fifth as well in individual games won with 839 (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 1,074 is No. 1), and he and Popovich rank first in NBA history in player-coach tandems at 839.

Said Parker: "Me, I trust Pop. He's been talking care of me and Timmy and Manu for a long time. So if he says to rest, I trust his judgment."

Spoelstra Pregame

The Spurs' active streak of 16 consecutive playoff appearances, the league's longest, is no coincidence, either, nor its 14 years of 50 or more victories. Popovich's view is, when you know you're going to have a hard time replacing something special -- be it a reliable car for your commute to work or three NBA All-Stars -- you take care of it.

"I've watched their minutes every year they've been here and kept them in a certain range," he said. "Just so we could try to prolong a career and have them as long as we possibly can.

"Lots of times they don't play in the fourth quarters. I'll go to the bench, hopefully they can maintain it, and sometimes I have to go back to those guys and they know it. But I think it serves our bench well, too, to have that experience out there."

Some coaches are less willing to do that. They'd opt for rest if they could trust THE rest.

"A lot of guys play 40-plus minutes to win now," Popovich said. "We're more concerned with later. Sometimes they don't like it -- I'll bring Manu out or Tony out and he'll be like, 'Pop, I...' And I say, 'Go sit down.' Sometimes they'll win the battle and I'll say, 'OK, stay out there.' But we're on top of that all the time."

Said Duncan: "That's players for you. We're going to complain either way. It's hard in the thick of things, in the middle of a game when you're used to playing 30-something and you're playing 20-something. You want to be out there -- you think [sitting down] is affecting your rhythm and everything else.

"But health is more important than anything. We've seen that for years with us, where Manu gets hurt or Tony's not 100 percent at some point or I'm not -- we go into the playoffs and we get beat, and we feel like we didn't have our best effort out there.

That's what our goal is."

In March, Duncan averaged 20.8 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.8 blocked shots while shooting 54 percent from the floor and 81.5 percent from the foul line. His resurgence at 36 is the result of lots of things: diet, workouts, getting so lean that Popovich says he's "raw bone." But he also is averaging 30.1 minutes while appearing in 61 of San Antonio's first 72 games.

Minutes or Games?

Once a coach wades into the whole rest arena, opinions differ. Some coaches meticulously scale back minutes for their players, the way Rivers tracks Garnett's substitutions into and out of Celtics games. Some are happy just to get a guy's average down, or maybe his season total, by any means possible; 20-point blowout victories with lots of garbage time are best, but even an occasional ejection can help.

Sitting out whole games? Players generally say they dislike that, though many know that a full day out of sneakers is the best rest possible at this time of the year. A canceled practice or shootaround has benefits as well.

The Beat: Gregg Popovich

"I think Pop does a great job of putting it out there for us. We're all competitors, we all want to be out there on the floor and help our team win every night. But the bottom line is, your body breaks down during the season and whether you want to rest or not, you have to."

His Spurs teammate, Parker, was asked about the best source of rest. Smiling, he said: "When we're up 20 and I can sit in the fourth quarter. But a day off always helps to regenerate and rejuvenate, things like that. It's not just physically, it's mentally, too. Sometimes that's how you get hurt, you get mentally tired."

Back in 2009, Portland and Boston drew attention for adjusting their teams' travel itineraries to allow for better sleep patterns. Both organizations had consulted with Dr. Charles Czeisler, the head of Harvard Medical School's Division of Sleep Medicine. The importance of getting sufficient sleep and keeping the body's internal clock in sync became the basis of "The Sleep Doctor's" prescription for the Trail Blazers and the Celtics. That sometimes meant skipping the postgame charter flight across time zones in favor of a more normal night back at the hotel, with a flight the following morning. This being a copycat league, other teams tried it, too.

Atlanta coach Larry Drew, like so many of his peers a former NBA player, can relate to what his guys go through. He has tweaked the Hawks' schedule and travel plans -- swapping a breakfast meeting or a walkthrough in a ballroom for a practice -- when he has seen the need.

"It's really important for me to get the pulse of our team," Drew said. "And look at the schedule, to see what makes sense. 'What can I do to help these guys push through this?' The last thing you want to happen is for a player to be completely worn down. I have to use my instincts on that."

Noted sports trainer Tim Grover, renowned for his individual work with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Wade, has a new book lauding the drive of super-elite athletes: "Relentless / From Good to Great to Unstoppable" (Scribner, 2013). But he also preaches the value of down time from those killer workouts.

"There is no really one best way to get rest," Grover said. "But a lot of the onus should be on the players to get their own rest. When you're in your hotel room, you should be trying to sleep. You shouldn't be texting, you shouldn't be partying. I mean, you practice for literally two hours a day. The rest of the time you have pretty much to yourself. Younger players have a tendency -- how should I put this? -- not to use that time in the best ways to enhance their recoveries and their ability to play at a high-performance level on a consistent basis.

"Some of the elite guys, they get hold of it real early and, as they mature, the Kobes, the Tim Duncans, the Ginobilis are guys whose games really don't tail off as they get older.

"I have a saying that I use with my guys: 'Listen, if you spend more time in the clubs on the road than you do sleeping, it's not good for your career.' "

Skipping a road game, playing 28 minutes instead of 38 occasionally or taking in a movie once in a while is a good thing. Sleep, nutrition and full body recovery are better, Grover said. Game-day naps should be two hours, minimum, he said.

That's why, while Grover lauds Popovich's approach -- "I'm guessing, but San Antonio must have a way of charting a person's total minutes played each year [and the value of rest]" -- he also doesn't have a problem with someone like Thibodeau, who has been accused of grinding down his guys.

"The way someone like Thibodeau looks at it, if a guy puts on his uniform, he's ready to go," said Grover, the CEO of Attack Athletics in Chicago. "He looks at it as, 'My job is to coach the team and get the maximum out of the players and get victories. I'm not here to baby-sit you. If we practice from two to three hours, you have another 21 to 22 hours to get everything else you need. You have access to the facilities and the trainers. It's your job -- you are a professional -- to be ready to play, 100 percent. It's not like you're working 8-10 hours a day.' "

The Bulls are also known to go light on scrimmaging, easing up on the days between games to make up for Thibodeau's heavy reliance on Luol Deng, Noah and a few others.

So there are less than three weeks left to the NBA season. It's almost like an approaching curfew: Does everyone know how rested their players are?

For fans of teams that can afford it -- either safely locked into a playoff position or hopelessly out of it -- this becomes the Caveat Emptor time of the year, a.k.a., beware tickets to see superstars in street clothes.

Teams that can't afford to sit their top performers risk hitting a wall in the first or second rounds.

And then there are those teams -- or players, at least -- who will be fine regardless.

"The schedule's a real grind. But as far as fatigue, I feel great," young Indiana star Paul George said. "Y'know, 22! So I don't really feel it like that."

That sound you hear is a bunch of veterans growling. Or hopefully, snoring.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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