We hear it so often this time of year that it has become a pre-playoff ritual.
“We just want to play our best ball heading into the postseason.”
The thinking makes sense on the surface. The NBA is an 82-game slog, but as long as you’ve hit your stride or “peak at the right time” just before the playoffs, it feels like that’s all that matters. Fans and coaches alike want to see some wins on the board before getting into the postseason. It breeds confidence, right? Lose a bunch of games before the playoffs, the opposite emotion sets in: Doubt.
It’s soothing to think that momentum is real, that April basketball in the NBA means something significant. But the evidence says otherwise. It doesn’t matter much at all whether you entered the postseason hot or cold.
The reality is that momentum heading into the postseason is largely a myth. Keep that in mind when your favorite star skips a game, or three, in April.
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There’s a saying that it’s better to be lucky than good. As DNP-Rests begin to pile up this time of year, keep in mind that it’s better to be healthy than hot.
When the DNP-Rest issue reached a boiling point in 2017 -- prompting commissioner Adam Silver to introduce anti-DNP-Rest rules to the board of governors -- Popovich defended his strategy of healthy scratches.
"You want to see this guy in this one game?” Popovich said in 2017. “Or do you want to see him for three more years in his career? And do you want to see him in the playoffs because he didn't get hurt because maybe he got rest and he was playing so much?”
Kyrie Irving recently echoed Popovich’s thoughts. The Celtics’ point guard may not be right about everything -- including the curvature of this planet -- but he’s on to something when he recently talked about the importance of the regular season’s final chapter.
"I’m definitely taking some games off before the playoffs,” Irving told NBC Sports Boston Insider Chris Forsberg. “Makes no sense, the emphasis on these regular games, when you’re gearing up for some battles coming in the playoffs.”
That may be have been an unsavory statement to some who want Irving to play and help straighten out Boston’s season. But he’s speaking truth to the reality, which is this: the NBA’s best players are routinely sitting in the name of injury prevention, placing it above short-term wins and losses.
Irving was a healthy scratch for the March 26 game against the Cavs, joining a host of All-Stars who have taken at least one game off due to rest or “load management” this season. This includes LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, D’Angelo Russell, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin.
Irving’s point is that health and readiness to play are the most important variables heading into the postseason. The former NBA champion knows from experience.
In 2016, the Cavs strategically rested Irving multiple times as the season wound down and gave James a DNP-Rest four times in the final month, including the final game in which all starters took the night off (technically, Tristan Thompson played four seconds to keep his ironman streak alive). Meanwhile, the Warriors gunned for the regular-season win record and started their stars in every game after Mar. 1, earning a record-breaking 73 wins. We know how that went.
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To drive home Irving’s instincts, how about a little history lesson? Let’s say you took the top two seeds in each conference since 2000 (a rough proxy for championship contenders) and sorted them into two buckets. In one bucket, we have what I’ll call The Hot Pot. These juggernauts are scorching hot, coming into the postseason with a record of 9-1 or 10-0 in their final games of the regular season. Just killing teams “at the right time.”
The other bucket is The Cold Tub. These are the icy juggernauts who have stumbled into the playoffs with a losing record in their final 10, scaring the pants off their fanbases.
If I asked you to pick which bucket would most likely produce a team that reached the NBA Finals, which would you choose, the Hot Pot or the Cold Tub?
Believe it or not, it’s the Cold Tub. The coldest teams reached the Finals more often than the hottest teams.
Since 2000, there have been 10 top seeds (No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the conference) who entered the postseason with a losing record in their final 10 games -- it doesn’t happen often. Of those teams that sputtered into the playoffs, six of them turned things around and reached the Finals. Of the 10 top seeds who entered the postseason scorching hot with at least nine wins in their final 10 games, just five reached the Finals -- one fewer than the Cold Tub.
This doesn’t mean that teams should tank the final month to boost their Finals chances. In fact, there were three title teams in the Cold Tub and four in the Hot Pot. How teams finish the regular season and perform in the postseason is mostly a toss-up. Momentum is little more than a fairy tale.
Still don’t believe it?
Take last year’s Golden State Warriors. They stumbled into the playoffs, losing six of their final 10 games and 10 of their final 17. In Game No. 82, the Warriors suffered the worst defeat under Steve Kerr, getting trampled by the Utah Jazz by 40 points even with Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green playing. It’s hard to imagine a team more out of sorts on their quest to repeat.
If you hit the panic button and sold all your Warriors stock right then, well … poor move by you.
Golden State proceeded to go 16-5 in the postseason and were so good that they swept the Finals, the first 4-0 championship series since 2007. Meanwhile, the Cavs team the Warriors swept entered the postseason victorious in 11 of their final 14 contests. Hot, cold, lukewarm -- it didn’t seem to matter. (Yes, the Warriors nearly lost to the Rockets, but Andre Iguodala missing Games 4 through 7 impacted the series a lot more than people thought.)
If you think momentum is real, then how do you explain the 2011-12 San Antonio Spurs? They entered the postseason on an 11-game win streak, earning the No. 1 seed out West. They swept the first two rounds and went up 2-0 against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals. A 21-game win streak! It doesn’t get any hotter than that, right?
They promptly lost four straight to OKC and didn’t even get to a Game 7. So much for that hot streak.
If you want more evidence of fickle momentum, peel back the calendar to the 2005-06 Miami Heat. That Shaq-led squad had a brutal start that cost Stan Van Gundy his job and an even more brutal finish under interim coach Pat Riley, going 4-7 in April and dropping their final three games by an average of 11.3 points.
They went on to win the title.
The last 10 games of the season holds so little weight that, in fact, the first 10 games of the season -- way back in October -- correlated more strongly to postseason success. Yes, games that took place six months prior turned out to be more tightly linked to how deep a team went in the playoffs than the stretch of games that took place on the eve of the postseason.
Since 2000, none of the 10 coldest top-seeded teams in the first 10 games of the season won a title; only two even reached the Finals. On the other end of the spectrum, of the 10 hottest early-season teams, three eventually won the championship (2007-08 Celtics, 2008-09 Lakers and 2013-14 Spurs) and a grand total of six reached the Finals.
The above research looks at just the top two seeds, focusing on championship contenders. But the examples of fallacy of momentum pop up elsewhere.
Remember last year’s Philadelphia 76ers? They entered the playoffs on a 16-game win streak, but it was Joel Embiid’s orbital fracture that derailed everything. After missing three weeks with the late-season injury, Embiid returned in Game 3 against the Heat in the first round but shot just 41.7 percent in the series and averaged five turnovers a game. The Boston Celtics dispatched the masked Embiid and Co. in five games, turning Philly’s 16-game win streak into fool’s gold.
The 2003-04 Spurs won 11 straight games to end the regular season, won the next six in the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and then … got swept by the Los Angeles Lakers in Games 3 through 6 to wrap up the Western Conference semifinals. The Spurs know this all to well: The regular season, or at least how you finish it, doesn’t hold as much weight as we’d like.
It’s hardly a coincidence that Gregg Popovich and the Spurs spearheaded the DNP-Rest movement in the NBA.
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Resting stars at the end of the season doesn’t make an NBA champion. But teams are smart to exercise caution at this time of the year. Even the best medical staffs cannot totally eliminate the risk of giant bodies sprinting, jumping and colliding to the point of catastrophic injury.
As of mid-March, the Blazers were the NBA’s healthiest team, tallying the fewest games lost due to injury this season, according to data provided to NBCSports.com by injury expert Jeff Stotts’ of InstreetClothes.com. And then C.J. McCollum hurt his knee and Jusuf Nurkic broke his fibula and tibia, all but extinguishing their hopes of a deep playoff run.
Graphic injuries like Nurkic’s might scare some teams to be more cautious with their stars and spur more DNP-Rests, which further lightens the power of late-season records. If teams are taking games off, that presents its own issues. The whole fabric of the league relies on the idea that these regular-season games matter and teams shouldn’t rest their stars. If those late-season games don’t hold weight, then the so-called “switch” really exists, and that means that players aren’t competing their hardest every night.
We’d like that not to be the case. In a legalized sports gambling world, it might be maddening to know that the best players can flip their competitive spirit on and off like a faucet. But those that have won at the highest levels know that late-season momentum isn’t worth much.
Last year, after suffering the worst loss of his coaching career and his third loss in four games, Kerr downplayed the significance of that embarrassing defeat and, more pointedly, the entire regular season as a whole:
“Playoffs are a whole different season,” Kerr told reporters. “We’ve won 58 games, which most teams would kill for. For us, with the expectations people have, it’s a disappointment. But none of that matters. In the end, it’s what you do in the playoffs. We’ll see what happens.”
What happened was the struggling Warriors blasted through the playoffs with an average win margin of 10 points, one of the most dominant playoff runs in NBA history. If the Warriors waltz into the playoffs again, don’t bat an eye. They likely won’t either.