Donald Sterling controversy aside, Round 1 of the NBA playoffs has been a joy so far.
Four series are all locked at 2-2 with Dallas and Spurs perhaps becoming the fifth later tonight. The two 3-1 series have also featured some exhilarating finishes, and the unlucky Bulls and Rockets could easily be up 3-1 at this point. Even the destined-to-be-forgotten Miami-Charlotte series has been closer than the 3-0 scoreline suggests with Al Jefferson playing some heroic one-legged basketball and MKG finally busting out.
These high intensity games are physically punishing the players, and fatigue will surely become a factor as the playoffs progress. History has shown this, with teams that have spread their workload throughout their roster during the regular season generally performing better deep in the playoffs.
So, it’s worth looking at which teams have the freshest legs right now. Which teams are well poised to make a postseason run in the upcoming months? And from which teams can we expect an energy slump? The graph below shows the percentage workload of the five most used players in the regular season for each playoff team.
LaMarcus is king of the NBA world right now, after going H.A.M. down in Houston, hitting one mid-range J after another, and continuing his solid production back home in Portland. But he and his teammates shouldn’t get too far ahead of themselves: it turns out, their five most used players have collectively logged the most minutes of any team during the season – some 69.4% of all available minutes. Can they keep up the incredible energy they’ve shown so far against Houston? Time will tell, but I wouldn’t count on it.
At the other end of the scale, the Spurs seem to be in a great position. Coach of the Year Pop has masterfully kept all his players under a 30 minutes per game average, with Belinelli somehow the second most used player. This isn’t great for fantasy team owners, but it’s a reason why we should expect another run to the Western Conference Finals from the team. Yes, I am fully aware they are down 2-1 against Dallas at the moment. But the Spurs are the better team and should get it together tonight – they’ve played like trash and are one Vinsanity shot away from leading 2-1.
The Grizzlies and OKC also are quite fresh, although Durant leads the league in regular season minutes played, at 79% of all available minutes. Tony Allen, who has only played 32%, has shown an amazing tenacity at guarding KD so far this series, and his extra fresh legs in this matchup are already helping sway the series the Grizzlies’ way. The victors will play the winner of Clippers-Warriors (yet another entertaining and evenly matched series), who are both around average in the freshness stakes.
In the East, the Pacers have the least fresh main five. This has already been well documented, as every man and his dog have thrown around theories as to their recent struggles. Unfortunately, their bench additions haven’t been able to help as much as Larry Bird would have hoped, and they are stuck in a difficult situation: further grind their stars into the ground, or play their underachieving bench. If they could squeeze past Atlanta, however, they would likely meet the Wizards in the next round, who have also played their starters heavy minutes. What a grind that series would be.
This all bodes very well for the Heat, who surely have the upper hand in the East. Wade has been rested often throughout the year, and is seemingly primed for a strong postseason run. LeBron has played only 73% of the available minutes this season, sixth highest among remaining players in the playoffs, whereas in the past he has usually led this category. Throw in the many days of rest that will follow their likely 4-0 series sweep of Charlotte, and with each passing day the Heat winning the East seems ever more likely…
That said, the Nets are the freshest in the conference, and could theoretically pose problems for the Heat in round 2. After a slow start this season, their veterans have finally got it together and they are undefeated against the Heat from four regular season games. Unfortunately, KG already looks worn down by these youthful Raptors, despite him having only played 28% of minutes this season.
They really need to find some consistency down low – Blatche is hit and miss, Garnett is giving them nothing, and Plumlee is still just a rookie. They’ve had some success with Paul Pierce at PF during the regular season – but this is the playoffs, and that is most likely not getting it done in a bruising 7-game battle. At this point in time, I can’t see the Nets beating the Raptors, let alone the Heat.
And that’s the thing: the freshness of teams is no guarantee of success. It’s merely an extra piece to consider in a complicated and interwoven tapestry of potential playoff success. That’s why you have to love the NBA. There are so many angles to contemplate.
And when they all come together like they have here in this first round, there’s no better entertainment in the world.