For the second time, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich faced a predicament after his team rolled off 11 straight wins. But actually, this was not a difficult decision.
Rest superseded victory, not only because the Spurs have three aging players in Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan, but because of this compressed season, which has little practice time and a demanding travel schedule to adhere to the national television schedule.
For the Celtics, they will have played division opponents New Jersey and Philadelphia three times but Chicago and Miami four times partly because those are premier games for ESPN and TNT. The NBA made sure that marquee games were retained while other less marketable games were more easily passed over.
That has made things difficult for elite teams, so last Monday, Popovich basically fielded the Austin Toros against the Jazz, and Devin Harris pushed Utah to a victory, snapping the Spurs’ winning streak.
The Heat, considered the league’s most athletic team with three superstars in their prime, resorted to resting guard Dwyane Wade April 8 in a win over the Pistons, claiming he had a sore ankle.
But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra acknowledged that the 66-games-in-120-something-days schedule has taken a toll on his club, and even the most energetic players concede it has been taxing.
“Once you’re in it, that’s all you’re thinking about,’’ said Spoelstra. “We knew it would be a challenge. We didn’t have much time to prepare for it anyway.
“Once we found out it would be a season, we had less than two weeks before training camp to prepare. I think this time here we’ve had at home was well-needed.’’
Wade would not say that he missed the Detroit game just to get a breather, but Popovich freely acknowledges his desire to rest players in preparation for the postseason.
Wade has dealt with various injuries over the years, but being the senior member of Miami’s Big Three, his long-term health is more fragile. He was also held out of Friday’s game against the Bobcats for a break in preparation for Sunday’s game against the Knicks.
“You didn’t know what to expect at the start of the season,’’ said Heat forward LeBron James. “You just wanted to play well and see if you could get as much rest as possible because they told us at the beginning we would have 66 games in 124 days. It was like, oh wow, if you break it down, it was like a game every other day.
“So you knew that you had to play well because you don’t have the 82-game luxury, but you also knew you had to stay healthy because the teams that can stay healthy are going to be in a really good position at the end of the season.
“It’s a challenging season mentally and physically for all of us. You’ve just got to prepare yourself. It’s more mentally taxing than anything because you play one game and less than 24 hours later you might have another game and you have one day off and you have two more games. It’s challenging but we knew what to expect.’’
Players Association Executive Committee member Keyon Dooling of the Celtics said he doesn’t believe this season will serve as a cautionary tale for the next labor talks about the perils of an abbreviated season.
“When you are fighting for your position on both sides, you will exert all resources to win,’’ said Dooling. “And health is secondary to the business. It is what it is. It’s like nothing you can explain as an athlete.
“It’s grueling. It’s definitely taken years off players’ careers, no doubt about that. Good players are probably going to have injuries that linger throughout their careers because of a condensed schedule.
Of course, the league alone cannot be blamed for the schedule. The Players Association agreed to the 66-game slate and, like the league powers, was lackadaisical during the early stages of negotiations, forcing the talks into the 11th hour in late November.
“It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just the cold reality of business,’’ said Dooling, who has dealt with a hip pointer and sore knee this season. “In corporate business, sometimes they call it fat.
“It’s just a form of business. It’s nothing personal. It’s hard on the body. Everybody knew it would be hard on the body.’’
A NEW ORLEANS SAINT
Benson comes to the rescue
The NBA sought out potential buyers for the New Orleans Hornets and found a few who were interested, but nothing came to fruition.
Because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina 6 1/2 years ago, commissioner DavidStern refrained from entertaining relocation ideas for the franchise. He maintained that he wanted to keep the team in the city, but a secure buyer would be required.
In the midst of a bounty controversy that stunned the National Football League and caused his organization major embarrassment, Saints owner Tom Benson has found a way to not only improve his public image but save the NBA in New Orleans.
His agreement to purchase the Hornets for $338 million gives Stern exactly what he desired: a local, dedicated, and affluent owner who will guide the troubled organization toward prosperity.
As Saints owner, Benson kept chipping away until his team won the city’s first major sports championship three years ago after years of downtrodden teams.
The Hornets have a young and energetic coach in Monty Williams, and plenty of salary cap space, and now the future of the franchise is secure.
Clippers point guard Chris Paul admitted the primary reason he asked out of New Orleans was the unstable ownership situation. That is no longer an issue.
“Many years ago in San Antonio, we brought the Spurs to town and I was a minority interest in it, because my interest was getting the basketball team in the city,’’ Benson said. “And the Hornets are so important in New Orleans, I would support them without the ownership of the Saints.
“I think they are tremendously [important] - not only to New Orleans, but the whole state and the whole Southern area there.
“If you would have been on the phone with Governor Bobby Jindal this morning, I thought he was coming through to kiss me.
“But it’s a very, very important part of our community.’’
Benson has to purchase the team from the NBA, an interesting process because the league is obviously not a conventional owner. Benson mentioned several times during his press conference that the NBA did not offer a hometown discount, though Stern is relieved that the league is no longer in the ownership business and has passed the franchise along to capable hands.
“There were many prospective people who were interested,’’ said Stern. “I think Tom recognized what he could do for the team, what the team could do for the city. And for other, I would say, joint business opportunities for entertainment and further development he was the natural purchaser, and we gave him the opportunity to do that.
“I think that to have the leading sports owner in the state and one of the leading sports owners in the country involved in the process speaks for itself.’’
VIEW FROM PHILADELPHIA
Celtics draw Collins’s praise
It once seemed delusional to think this current Celtics crew could beat the retooled and athletic Heat once, let alone twice, but the teams may be on a collision course in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
While the Heat would remain the prohibitive favorites to prevail, as they did last year in five games, Philadelphia coach Doug Collins, who has observed the Celtics for years, believes they are one of the few teams that can enjoy consistent success against Miami.
“Doc [Rivers] is great, he’s got his team poised, they are getting strong at the right time,’’ said Collins. “They are a handful. I would not want to have to play them in the playoffs.
“I think everybody’s sort of looking at Miami and Chicago as the [top] two teams, but I would not blink on Boston, I’ll tell you that. They can defend you and they’ve got matchups.
“One of the keys when you play Miami is you’ve got to defend [Chris] Bosh and they’ve got [Kevin] Garnett to do that. That’s a huge key for them.
“When we play [the Heat] we have no answer for [Bosh]. When he scores big, he gives them those three guys scoring and I think the last time they played Boston, he had two field goals. That is critical if those two teams play each other.’’
Collins was also in favor of moving Avery Bradley to a starting role and bringing Ray Allen off the bench.
“It’s amazing,’’ said Collins. “I watch Ray, and on this one play they run, they run him off picks three different ways and he goes one side, then comes back another and they swing it, and the big guy cracks down on him,.
“You know how well-conditioned you have to be to run around like that and in that kind of situation, and side to side twice and shoot and knock it down.’’
Bradley has made an immediate impact on defense. In seven April games entering Friday’s contest at Toronto, the Celtics allowed 85.1 points per game - 4.0 points below their season average. That coincided with Bradley’s inclusion in the starting lineup.
“I know when Boston really locks in, they are tough to score against,’’ Collins said. “You’ve got pressure on that ball now. You’ve got Avery Bradley and [Rajon] Rondo who can both pressure that ball, and Paul Pierce is a very good defender and Kevin Garnett is one of the best screen-and-roll defenders in the game. And what you do is keep Ray fresh.
“I admire who they are. I admire the way they play. They’re a team in every aspect. Doc has done a wonderful job with them.’’
Walker’s exit a sad ending
The retirement of Antoine Walker ends a very sad and cautionary tale of a once-budding career turning into an insignificant one.
Walker was in decline when he won a title with the Heat in 2006. After a forgettable stint with the Timberwolves, Walker was out of the league and out of money.
He tried to use the NBA Developmental League to make a comeback but he had gained too much weight, lost too much speed, and was left in the dust in a league with aging players committed to physical conditioning.
Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett place a major emphasis on their playing shape, which has extended their careers. And a look at Cleveland’s Antawn Jamison shirtless shows a serious six-pack, a testament to the dedication of these 30-something veterans to stay relevant.
Walker appeared to lose his love for the game, which happens, just as it did with Stephon Marbury and Lamar Odom, and he tried to come back to help pay off his debts.
But by the time Walker wanted to play again, his body had betrayed him, and when teams scouted him in the NBADL, he was a shell of himself.
In 44 games for Idaho this season, Walker averaged 9.5 points, shooting 36.1 percent from the field and 20.4 percent from the 3-point line, a long way from those shimmies of yesteryear.
The boys of summer
The NBA announced that the Las Vegas Summer League is returning after a one-year hiatus. The cancellation caused by the NBA lockout last summer may encourage the Celtics to have entries in both the Orlando Summer League, which will take place at the Magic’s practice court, and the Las Vegas Summer League, where the Celtics haven’t had a team since the days of Gerald Green. With potentially two first-round picks, and E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson desperately needing experience, the Celtics could benefit from summer league play.
Kidd is not too old
Jason Kidd has indicated that he wants to play one more season, and he would serve as a backup to Deron Williams if the Mavericks land Williams this summer. Kidd is in the final year of a three-year, $24 million deal that many observers questioned because Kidd was 36 at the time of the contract. He helped the Mavericks win the franchise’s first title. Kidd is slowing down but could still help as a backup.
Backup plan in place
There are college prospects who are waiting past the NCAA’s April 10 deadline because the NBA has set an April 29 deadline to declare for the draft. While some have declared over the past few days, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, widely expected to be the No. 1 overall pick, has yet to declare. But Kentucky has already filled Davis’s slot with Massachusetts product Nerlens Noel, so John Calipari has planned for Davis to declare for the draft and will not be in scramble mode to replace him.
The Kings are not so set to stay in Sacramento because the Maloof brothers are refusing to abide by the conditions of the initial agreement to build a privately financed arena. The owners and the city appeared to reach agreement six weeks ago on a plan that would keep the club in Sacramento with a new stadium complex. However, the Maloofs, whom many believe are experiencing financial troubles, don’t want to invest the initial money agreed upon. They met with the NBA Board of Governors over the weekend in New York along with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who implemented the plan to save the team from relocation. In this case, commissioner David Stern may encourage the Maloofs to sell the team because the city met all of his demands. League sources said the Maloofs were lukewarm on the deal from its inception and are now claiming they were under duress to agree to pre-construction funds . . . The final two weeks of the season should be fascinating with the close playoff races, but another thing to watch is teams shutting down veteran players because of injuries or tanking to improve draft position. LaMarcus Aldridge, Jarrett Jack, and Corey Maggette are among those who have been declared out for the season, while the Raptors already are without Jerryd Bayless and may not play Andrea Bargnani for the final games. The Raptors are also waiting for 2011 first-round pick Jonas Valaciunas to join the club next season after he averaged 14.7 points and 7.7 rebounds in 22 minutes per game in Lithuania.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.