DA's Morning Tip

Players, teams in dogged pursuit of downtime as NBA season nears ends

Contenders weighing stretch-run chases vs. health for playoffs as 2016-17 enters its final weeks

I’m tired

Tired of playing the game

Ain’t it a crying shame

I’m so tired…

Lili Von Shtupp, the “Teutonic Titwillow,” singing “I’m Tired” in “Blazing Saddles.”


Why are the Washington Wizards having one of their best seasons in the last 20 years? You can point to Scott Brooks, the new coach. You can note that Otto Porter ranks No. 2 in the NBA in 3-point percentage. Or you can talk about Marcin Gortat averaging a double-double. They’re all factors.

But they’re excelling because their two best players have been on the floor most of the season. Really, that’s all.

John Wall has played in 59 of the team’s 61 games this season. Bradley Beal has played in 57 of 61.

They’re Washington’s bell cows, the guys that get the big basket or make the big stop. It’s the same for every team in the league — when your best players make it through most of a season, you tend to have your best seasons. And thus Washington leads the Southeast Division for the first time years, with the likelihood of a top-four seed in the playoffs an increasingly distinct possibility.

It’s new territory for Beal, who’d missed a whole season’s worth of games — 81 — in his first four NBA seasons. He’s never played more than 73 games in a season, and he only did that once. The other three have been lost to stress reactions in his legs and hamstring pulls and broken noses and concussions.

“This is the first year I’ve had a really, really healthy season,” Beal said. “I’m excited. What we’ve been doing is terrific. They’ve been telling me about resting, taking care of my body, lifting, eating right. A lot of stuff has changed for me, and resting is one of them. I always used to think I was young, I’m all right, I’ve got fresh legs. I learned fast. You learn that it’s the total opposite.”

The most important part, and hardest to pull off, of being great is showing up. But if it was a matter of pride in the old days to play all 82 games in a regular season, it’s folly today to push things. And this is the time of the season when discretion is most decidedly the better part of valor.

This is when healthy players often sit, as teams try to lower their workloads before the playoffs, or keep them from getting hurt before the playoffs, when an injury can have devastating consequences.

“You can look at the schedule and see some games where you know your guys are going to be tired … but you really have to play it by ear, day by day.”

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr

The Butcher’s Block of players lost either late in the regular season or in the playoffs in recent years to injury reads like one of those “what if the Germans had won World War II?” novels. Just imagine. Would the Cleveland Cavaliers have lost to the Golden State Warriors in The 2015 Finals if they’d had Kevin Love (separated shoulder in the first round against the Boston Celtics) or Kyrie Irving (fractured kneecap suffered in Game 1 against Golden State) available? Conversely, would the Warriors have lost to the Cavaliers in The Finals last year if Stephen Curry, playing with a sprained MCL suffered in the first round against the Houston Rockets, had been his normal self?

The Miami Heat lost Hassan Whiteside in Game 3 of its 2016 Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Toronto Raptors to a sprained MCL. The LA Clippers lost both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul in Game 4 of their 2016 first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers. The playoffs are their own, special, cruelty when it comes to major injuries.

But first, you have to get to the playoffs. And as the regular season enters its final weeks, teams have very difficult decisions to make down the stretch.

The Spurs, of course, started this long ago — even before Tim Duncan got a DNP-Old in 2012, coach Gregg Popovich was proactive in sitting the older players on his teams at necessary times during the season. Robert Horry got a “DNP-Old Age” as early as 2007. And, famously, the NBA fined the Spurs $250,000 in 2012 after Popovich sent Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green home near the end of a lengthy road trip before San Antonio played a TNT game against the Heat.

“Everybody talks about Pop and I love Pop to death, but he has guys behind him that are easy starters for other teams,” Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “He’s got Hall of Famers like (Manu) Ginobili stepping in. It makes a difference. Everybody, we don’t all have that luxury.”

The league hopes to alleviate the need for coaches to rest their key players during the regular season by starting the 2017-18 NBA season a week earlier than normal next October, which should spread out the schedule and reduce the number of back-to-back games and stretches of four games in five nights.

But that still leaves the rest of this season, and leaves coaches in a quandary.

For most of the season, for example, it looked like the Warriors would have an easy go of it down the stretch and be able to rest some of their key players. They weren’t on the 73-win pace of last season, but they were comfortably on top in the Western Conference.

But then, Kevin Durant went down for at least a month with a Grade 2 MCL sprain suffered against the Wizards last Tuesday. With Durant down, the Warriors have to think hard about how to manage the rest of the regular season. Now, Golden State is suddenly just three games ahead of the Spurs for the best record in the West, and home court advantage throughout the playoffs.

“My first year coaching, I thought I could plan the whole thing out,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said last Tuesday, before Durant’s injury.

“Then you realize you can’t, really,” Kerr said. “You might circle a date on the calendar where you go ‘I might give so-and-so a day off here.’ Maybe he’s feeling great that night. And then you think, he’s definitely going to play this night. (But) maybe he tweaked his ankle the day before. So you can’t really predict it. You can look at the schedule and see some games where you know your guys are going to be tired … but you really have to play it by ear, day by day.”

The Dubs also are in the midst of a ridiculously tough patch geographically — a nine-day East coast trip to Philly, D.C., Chicago, New York and Atlanta, a flight home Monday night for a single game at Oracle Arena Wednesday night against the Celtics, then back on the road for back-to-back games against the Minnesota Timberwolves (Friday) and Spurs (Saturday).

That Spurs game had a flashing red light on it as a potential rest/DNP night for some of the Warriors’ stars. Now, the Warriors may not be able to afford to give a game to San Antonio. It’s part of the calculus almost every contending team has to deal with in the last month.

“You look at times where you can steal minutes for guys in certain situations,” Casey said. “But it’s very difficult when every possession’s important and you’re trying to scratch out games and you’re trying to win games.”

Assessing rest and recovery is a year-long process by all teams, which use wearables to monitor fitness and stress levels starting in training camp and throughout the season. Half the teams in the league use Catapult monitors; others swear by Viper pods to take down the numbers. They also use biochambers and modified diets to help their players sleep, and devices like the NormaTec to aid in recovery.

Teams hook their players to these devices on planes and in hotels. They use specific hot and cold tub plans based on the team’s schedule, offer sleep education via apps and online, and encourage their players pack their bags with recovery rather than high fashion in mind.

The National Basketball Players Association is building “rest pods” in its new midtown Manhattan location for visiting players who just want to take a midday nap. “We wanted a space where players could come and not be inundated by the noise of the staff,” NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts said recently.

“At the beginning of the year, we do a study of our travel, number one,” said Alex McKechnie, the Toronto Raptors’ Director of Sports Science. “We look at the extent of travel. We all do the same thing; I get it. But it’s just how it falls with follow up of games, certain games, etcetera. And we get some degrees of predictions of games that are likely to be more of an issue than others. So what we do is we do that initially. We really concern ourselves with recovery more than anything throughout the course of the year. That’s something, it’s not about just all of a sudden, you figure you ought to be resting people.”

The search for rest never ends. Teams have been adjusting their postgame and shootaround routines for years in order to give their players the best chance to get a good night’s sleep. Teams going from West to East on long road trips have tried flying later in the day after playing the night before, so their players can get a good night’s sleep before traveling across multiple time zones. They’ve had their players stay up later upon arrival than normal so their body clocks stay on the same rhythm as if they were at home.

The Raptors were one of the teams that went to later shootarounds than the normal 10-11 a.m. window on game days two years ago.

“You’re not going to sleep right after the game; none of us do,” McKechnie said. “You don’t; I don’t, everybody else doesn’t. So what’s the logic of having a 10 o’clock practice? It doesn’t make sense. So we pushed that back and pushed that back, pushed that back, and tried to become more realistic about how we were going to do this moving forward.”

But the Raptors went back to their old shootaround times this season.

“For us, this year, I think we needed the repetitions in practice, defensively offensively, and used to get better,” Casey said. “I think two years ago, we went to the afternoon shootarounds. I thought our defense slipped. Our repetitions, our habits slipped a little bit. And so it’s not punishment, it’s just making sure that we’re continuing to create good habits. And the only time to really do that is at shootaround, it seems to me.”

That back and forth between coach and medical staff is common — as is the carping of most players, who never think they need a day off, even when the medical staff says their vitals are in the red.

“The trainers have ultimate call,” Kerr said. “If the trainers say he can go and he says ‘I want to go,’ then, okay, you can do that. But if the trainers are saying no, then he’s not going to be able to talk me into it.”

McKechnie says it’s not so much how many minutes a guy plays, but how many minutes in a row.

“A player can run a certain amount of minutes, no problem, or it will seem to be no problem at all,” he said. “But it’s the consecutive minutes that become issues more than anything. The continuous minutes that are played constantly, that’s more a worrisome part than (total). A player may be playing 24 minutes. But if he’s playing a whole lot of them consecutively, then we may be getting into problems.”

McKechnie says “common sense” dictates what he, Toronto’s athletic trainer and the team’s strength and conditioning staffs proscribe for players in terms of rest and recovery. The Raptors use Catapult, but the information flow slows to a trickle at this time of the season, when practices are few and far between.

“You want to win games; you want to help the team win. … But at the end of the day it’s still smart. So the brains of it has to kick in and you have to realize that your body is important, and rest is super important.”

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal

“We still use it in terms of, more a case of getting the kids that aren’t playing to an elevated workload, moreso, and sustaining a workout as opposed to looking for a breakdown,” McKechnie said. “Most of the time, at this time of year, our guys aren’t practicing, for the most part. It’s just getting shots up and getting to recovery and the rest-and-recovery process. So I think you have to look at the whole logical thing here in terms of how much you really get from Catapult that’s going to apply to that. Everybody’s fatigued at this time of the year, and we all know it. So you’re just focused on recovery at this point.”

Beal was, in his words, a “knucklehead” earlier in his career when it came to postgame workouts and rest.

“You always want to be on the floor,” Beal said. “You want to win games; you want to help the team win. This is a game we love to do. So it’s kind of like you’re taking it away from us a little bit. You’re withdrawing from us a little bit. But at the end of the day it’s still smart. So the brains of it has to kick in and you have to realize that your body is important, and rest is super important.”

So Beal has cut back on the junk food, lifts at least two times a week in between games to keep his weight up and deal better with bumps and bruises and gets to bed earlier.

“I wasn’t taking care of my body the way I was supposed to,” he said. “I was kind of negligent towards it. Now, having history about it, I’ve learned my lesson now.”

On Sunday, Beal rolled his ankle in the first half against Orlando when he landed on the foot of the Magic’s Terrence Ross after shooting a jumper. The diagnosis was a mild ankle sprain. In years past, Beal may well have been out for the rest of the game, or for the start of the Wizards’ West coast road trip.

This time, though, the sprain was mild. Beal returned and scored nine of his game-high 32 points in the fourth quarter, helping Washington to a come-from-behind win. Was that because he stopped eating candy, or was it blind luck?

Maybe it was some of both.

“Fatigue’s fatigue, no matter how you cut it,” McKechnie said. “You have to deal in objectivity at all times, and you can’t get into emotions. Those are the most important things. You try to stand your ground and make objective decisions, not emotional decisions. I think that’s how you have to deal with that.”

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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