NBA

Opinion: Will contending teams’ rest plans influence which NBA team lands the No. 8 seed?

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Now that the novelty has worn off over a resumed season, the NBA has shown some sense of normalcy.

Relatively speaking, of course. Teams still play games in arenas without fans. They also remain isolated on a quarantined campus. Just like in other normal years, though, NBA teams have increasingly spent the final week of the regular season sitting either injured or fatigued players to prepare for the playoffs.

“It’s going to happen at the end of the season,” Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “You just hope that they’re doing it for their best interest.”

The reason for Stotts expressing some concern over a common practice? During this restarted season, the context of this practice has changed.

The Utah Jazz sat five players, including Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, on Friday against the San Antonio Spurs, which are among the six teams fighting for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff seed. The Clippers sat Kawhi Leonard and had minutes restrictions on Paul George in crunch time during Saturday’s game against Portland, which is one of the other six teams jockeying for that eighth spot.

The San Antonio Spurs took advantage of a depleted Utah Jazz roster to post a 119-111 victory Friday night and improve their playoff chances. (Photo: Kevin C. Cox, Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports)

San Antonio took advantage of Utah’s depleted roster with an eight-point win. The Trail Blazers, however, did not. Portland guard Damian Lillard missed a pair of free throws that could have given the Trail Blazers a one-point lead with 18.7 seconds left. He then missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 9.5 seconds remaining.

These two different outcomes explains the complex picture. Every aspiring playoff team wants to feel it has a fair shot at making the playoffs. While the NBA requires teams to report their injuries throughout the season, the league should but has not legislated how teams should either rest, treat or play their injured or tired players.

“There are always going to be decisions that are made that impact other teams,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “Things that other teams do are going to impact us. It’s really impossible to tell.”

It is really impossible to tell about a team’s motives, either.

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Other aspiring playoff teams can cynically wonder if Snyder gave a favor to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich after he once coached San Antonio’s D-League team.

“Obviously it helps San Antonio. There’s nothing we can do about it,” Stotts said. “I don’t know what Utah’s thinking is as far as player health and positioning and where they want to be in the playoffs. I don’t know. It’s difficult to say.”

Snyder gladly filled in that information void amid Utah’s recent injuries to Mitchell (left peroneal strain), Conley (right knee soreness), Royce O’Neale (right calf soreness) and Nigel Williams-Gross (left ankle sprain). O’Neale played through pain the previous game against Memphis before receiving an ultra sound. And Snyder considered it necessary to rest Gobert on the first night of a back-to-back.

“If there is an expectation that we play hurt players on back-to-backs, I don’t think that is realistic,” Snyder said. “I think everyone is going to do what is best for them.”

Other aspiring playoff teams can also cynically wonder if the Clippers wanted to maximize Portland’s chances of making the postseason. The reason? Those in NBA circles consider the Trail Blazers as having the best shot to win a first-round match up against the Los Angeles Lakers, which are expected to meet the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals. Perhaps such a ploy could ensure the Clippers have a smoother playoff journey.

“I have no problem with it,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Everyone has to manage their own team their own way."

The Clippers sat Leonard as part of their season-long strategy to sit him on back-to-backs to manage his left knee. They targeted Saturday’s game to buy extra recovery time before Sunday’s game against Brooklyn. While Patrick Beverley (left calf strain) and Montrezl Harrell (recent death of his grandmother) already were sidelined, the Clippers also sat George for the final 5:09 because of a previously planned minutes restriction (28).

Patrick Beverley trolling Damian Lillard at the free throw line yelling “DAME TIME”😂😂pic.twitter.com/1XHzD4OH0e

The Clippers prevailed amid Lillard’s surprising misses, which Clippers coach Doc Rivers likened to golfer Tiger Woods missing a five-foot putt.

“We don’t worry about other teams. We worry about ourselves. That’s all you can do,” Rivers said. “That’s not our problem. They knew guys would play a certain amount of minutes. I made a point we’re going to try to win a game. We’re out trying to play basketball. It’s a competition. It always is. It always will be.”

How teams manage their rosters will always be a source of contention and criticism, even during a restarted season.

Some fans might feel confused why teams would become conservative with playing time following a four-month hiatus when they need on-court time to shed rustiness and accelerate team building. But teams have played every other day during this restart, and are subject to one back-to-back. Players need time to recover from that workload, so that they do not become susceptible to fatigue or injuries.

To safeguard against teams manipulating their rosters for competitive purposes, the NBA has required teams to submit their injury reports by 5 p.m. ET the night before a game. For the second night of a back-to-back,  teams have to alert the league office about their roster five hours before tipoff. With all of that season-long data, the league office already is aware which players are harboring significant or minor injuries. In this case, the NBA has not determined any foul play.

That might not assuage concerns for the aspiring playoff teams, though. In Portland’s case, the Trail Blazers likely felt elated the Clippers prioritized their health before bemoaning their failure to take advantage of their diminished roster. The day before, Portland likely felt frustrated San Antonio reduced the standings gap partly because of Utah’s unhealthy roster.

“My only hope is they are doing it for the benefit of their team. I think you have to hope the coaches and players are doing what is in their best interest,” Stotts said. “For those teams that have secured positioning, they are looking at the playoffs with being rested and healthy and doing what they have to do to be ready for the playoffs. That’s their most important thing. For us six teams trying to get into the playoffs, we have a different focus.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

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