May 22 2013 10:20AM

How The Rest Will Be Won


Stephen Dunn/NBAE/Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs now have three days off before they face the Grizzlies in Memphis Saturday for Game 3 of the 2013 Western Conference Finals.

As Tim Duncan said after his team's 93-89 overtime victory Tuesday to put the Spurs up, 2-0, in the series, "It's huge. Huge. We need it. Coming off the last series, how physical this series is, the minutes someone like Tony [Parker] is playing, some of the guys are playing. It's huge for us. We need this time. We'll use it wisely. We'll be refreshed. Obviously, we're going into hostile territory in Memphis. It'll be a much tougher game going to Memphis, but we'll definitely take this time off to reenergize."

The Energizer Bunny has nothing on these Reenergizing Spurs, who have been playing their own form of RestBall all season long in an innovative way that may one day be standard in the NBA.

No NBA team has made such a pattern of resting its star players as San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich has with these veteran-laden Spurs teams in recent years.

The Spurs stars don't play four-games-in-five-nights during the regular season, even when NBA schedule-makers gave the team 10 such scenarios--more than anyone else--the past two seasons.

Pop simply sits one or more of his Big 3 out--Duncan, Parker and Ginobili--in a game and then doles that playing time out to a second- or third-stringer, giving the sub valuable experience.

Sometimes when faced with three-games-in-four-nights, Pop makes sure to limit the Big 3's minutes, in hopes that he can get away with winning ballgames and keeping their playing time under 80-or-so combined minutes during those three games.

Pop behaves this way because the Spurs contract out Apollo MIS, which does some of the best research when it comes to tracking exhaustion and being aware of the problems fatigue brings.

It really is an innovative new field, where an American Journal of Sports Medicine study showed athletes may be six times more inclined to injure themselves when fatigued.

That is one reason why the Spurs during the regular season avoided the happenstance of fatiguing their own players, and why Pop still monitors player minutes closer than other playoff coaches.

Popovich is always looking at the big picture. His goal: a two-month playoff run (hence, that is why Ginobili didn't play more than 20 minutes in the first round, and why Tiago Splitter, after suffering a first-round ankle sprain, didn't play 30-plus minutes in Round 2 until Game 6).

That also is another reason why Duncan says this week's rest period is huge for the Spurs. Because rest is something the team has grown accustomed too, as Pop tries to make sure the 37-year old Duncan, 35-year-old Manu Ginobili and 31-year-old Parker have enough gas in the tank to make it through June and yet another NBA Finals run.

So far, RestBall has worked.

In the last two seasons, while managing his team's regular-season minutes closer than any season in previous years, Popovich played his top five minutemen only 52 and 50 percent of his team's total allotment of minutes. Both years, his squads reached the Western Conference Finals.

The 2012-13 Spurs' top five minutemen averaged only 29.3 minutes per game, while his 2011-12 Spurs' quintet averaged 27.2 minutes per game in the lockout-compressed season.

Contrast those numbers with playoff-injured teams like the Golden State Warriors (34.9 minutes per game for their five main minutemen), Los Angeles Lakers (33.2) and Chicago Bulls (32.6), and you see the difference in philosophies.

Play those numbers out over the course of the 2012-13 season, and you see the Warriors, Lakers and Bulls playing their quintets 67, 59 and 61 percent of the time, respectively.

Is it a coincidence the Spurs' old Big 3 are relatively healthy now, compared to a team like the Lakers who had four April-injured 30somethings, three who ranked amongst the top six 32-plus-year-olds in minutes per game this season?

It certainly didn't help matters that the Lakers played three 30somethings 39-plus minutes per game in April as they tried to land a playoff spot, only to see two of those three men go down with injuries that same month (seriously-injured Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake, not to mention Metta World Peace and Steve Nash, who both were already hurt).

One has to wonder too about the Warriors, who played their players heavy minutes during the regular season, saw David Lee go down in the first game of the playoffs, played Stephen Curry 58 minutes of the double-overtime Game 1 of the Warriors-Spurs series, only to see him re-aggravate an ankle injury later in the playoffs and shoot 13-for-40 on 3's and 20-for-51 on 2's the rest of the series.

Conversely, Parker played 10 minutes less than Curry in that double-overime Game 1 and seemingly had more gas in the tank for the rest of the series because of it.

The list of more examples goes on, as do the Spurs, only in a different, better direction.

Will the Spurs make it through the playoffs relatively unscathed?

Who knows?

What we do know is that the Spurs pushed the NBA's sixth-fastest pace this season, mostly because they utilized their 15-man roster better than most.

We know that the main reason San Antonio ranked seventh in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency this regular season is because of the high quality of second- and third-stringers who performed at a high level when their number was often called.

We also know the Spurs have been able to post the best cumulative record in the West the past two years, playing their bench 49 percent of the time while reaching the Conference Finals relatively healthy both seasons.

That is a pretty good track record for a team led by a Big 37-year-old, 35-year-old and 31-year-old, who are all probably taking a nap as you read this right now.