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It's a marathon, not a sprint: Pacing yourself in the NBA

Why are the playoffs so much more intense than the regular season? How about close 4th quarters? It matters more, so guys play harder. But were they not playing hard before? The answer is: probably not. That's why San Antonio's excellent bench is so important to their success -- both during the regular season, and the playoffs.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

An NBA game resembles a distance race more than a sprint. If you've watched the games this postseason, you've likely caught a clip of Pop saying, "It's a long game, play with patience, you don't have to get it all done at once," or words to that effect. He's not just talking about a mental state of trying to rush things, but also conservation of energy.

As fans, we want our team to maintain high intensity, effort, and focus, do all of the little things, win 50/50 balls, make perfect passes, finish contested layups, be fractions of a second faster than the other team. You see teams do it for short periods of times and go on runs, and sometimes two teams do it at the same time. That next level is not some magic thing. It is effort, and intensity, and requires energy.

A lot of energy.

As fans, we don't want to consider the possibility that world class athletes who are paid millions of dollars aren't giving maximum effort all the time. We gripe when 50/50 balls are lost. We complain at sloppy play and turnovers. We are disgusted when guys don't back on defense and the other team scores in transition. And when guys finally turn it on the the fourth quarter, we are reticent to praise them for their performance because if they had just given a little more effort throughout the game, they wouldn't have needed a great 4th quarter comeback.


There seems to be some kind of law of nature having to do with efficiency. Let's take as an example, a car. There is a speed on a highway with no stops, that will yield the most MPG. Let's call your optimum cruising speed. And it is different for each car. And it is certainly not top speed. If you want to go faster, you have to use more stored energy with less work being done. You might be able to cruise at 70MPH and get 25 MPG. But if you want to go 80MPH, a 14% increase, I can guarantee you, you're going to use far more than 14% more fuel. To put it another way, with a full tank of gas at 70MPH you might be able to go 300 miles. At max speed, you might only be able to go half that. Your endurance is significantly lessened due to the intensity of your passage.

We have all heard the narratives about Pop resting guys, conserving them through the entire season, so that they have enough in the tank when the playoffs roll around to get it done. We can understand that doing something repetitively over a period of time can be draining. But we don't really think about it practically, for a couple of reasons, 1) because we can't measure it, and 2) because we kind of think, hey, they get used to it, they adapt, so it doesn't really matter.

We don't know if, or how much, LaMarcus Aldridge is affected by having played 40 minutes per game for most of the season. I mean, he's used to it right? He has the conditioning to do it. He's putting up good numbers so he's not affected by it. We don't know how much more spring Tim Duncan has in his legs because he has averaged under 30 minutes a game. We have a hard time comprehending how 6-10 minutes can mean that much. It's 6 minutes! It's the length of a YouTube video. So, the fans and media tend to dismiss it as a topic, except in cases of epic effort followed by epic collapse. "They ran out of gas." Or, "They worked so hard getting to the playoffs, they didn't have enough to make a run."


And now for a topic that the media doesn't address: per game energy and effort, in game resting and the correlation that exists among them. In terms of the above analogies, it would be the "speed" at which a player plays the game. I will confess that I have been guilty of complaining to my TV screen that somebody was dogging it, and if they aren't going to give maximum effort on every possession, then they might as well sit on the bench and let some other guy go all out.

Part of that perspective is due to playing high school sports - short seasons of course - with coaches that said, "Give 100%! If you get tired, I'll sub in somebody else." with the concept being to push past what you think you can do. So, it was good, in that regard, but left me with a false expectation. When I couldn't give enough, when I was dragging, it was a conditioning issue. I expected pro athletes to be in tip top physical condition and therefore give a high effort every night. I guess it is especially frustrating when another team seemed to be wiping the floor with my team - not due to talent or scheme, but sheer effort.

NBA fans, I've got bad news for you. Your heroes don't give 100% on every possession. They can't. It is impossible. A cheetah can run 70MPH, for a short stretch, but then he's done. Kaput. Time to hit the showers, or have big meal and relax in the shade. A mustang travels at a much slower speed, but can go 50 miles in a day or more. The extra gear that people talk about? That's just a noticeably higher level of effort, perhaps even a sustainable high level of energy over a period of minutes, or in some cases, most of a game.

Each player has a level of effort that is their most efficient, and a level that is the highest sustainable level. These might be the same, but are probably different. They might also differ from night to night. This is the overall "speed" of their game.

Manu Ginobili recently said that last year, he knew sometimes when he was handling the ball that he didn't have the energy to go to the rim and finish, so he would settle for a pick and pop. That's good self awareness, but also, probably not the best thing for your team. We can surmise that if he doesn't have that burst to get to the rim, he doesn't have that burst to fight through a screen, or recover to a shooter on defense. Dirk Nowitski said much the same thing this year. He didn't have the energy to drive the ball on every possession when he is being crowded - which is a reason that Splitter was more effective on him this year than ever before. Would a breather help with that? For a few possessions maybe, but there is a longer term weariness that's also in play and age is a factor.

Energy and recovery

When you see somebody do their cheetah burst of speed, it takes a LOT more energy than traveling the same distance at 70 or 80%. There is a cost. The cheetah has to rest and recover. In basketball, that cost might catch up on the next play when the guy is out of breath and gets beat on D, or puts a slam dunk attempt off the front of the rim, or it could be a slower average speed, or lack of burst energy at the end of the game.

All activity needs to be followed by rest. If it is, the body recovers quite nicely, converting stored energy into usable energy. Even a short rest can bring energy levels back up to a high level. Ever see a guy reach out and commit a foul because he was too tired to move his feet? Standing around for a couple of free throws is a chance for him to recover, in spite of getting no breather on the bench. You know how Popovich stresses not fouling? Not only does it typically give the other team easy points, but those stoppages in play are recovery time, and they benefit the team whose players play more minutes - which is typically not Pop's team.

But bench rest is the best, because there are mental and emotional components as well. As long as you are in the game, you don't get breaks from those. While you are on the bench, you get to see the game from another perspective and your mind is free to analyze it without having to make decisions.

It is like a batter in the batter's box trying to work out the timing of an ace pitcher's fastball. Easier to do looking on. Manu has said that he likes coming off of the bench because he can see what the other team is trying to do and come in with a plan for what he would like to do. And emotionally, you get recharged, and excited, and can't wait to get out there again to contribute.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen Pop pull a guy from the game while I howl in protest because that guy was keeping us in the game. But, that's the point. That's the guy expending the energy to keep us in the game. That is the guy that most desperately needs rest and recovery. That is the guy that is going to get worn down and made useless the quickest. That is the guy that could get injured playing too long at that speed. And he'll be back in a few minutes, fresh and ready to do it some more.

In round two after one of the games, Stotts said that in the second half, the Spurs were on cruise control. They still looked pretty good. The thing is, Spurs on cruise control, are pretty much regular season Spurs. They are good enough to win a lot of games with just that effort, playing just that speed for 48 minutes. Especially playing back to backs and with so much fatiguing travel, if a team plays with a lot more effort than cruise control, they are going to burn out in the long run. Which is one reason the Spurs lost a lot of games to contenders early in the season. They weren't willing to play the games as if they were playoff games. And later, they gave better effort, and were just a little sharper at their effort level, and they started knocking off some teams that may have been more fatigued than early in the season.

The reserves

The bench for the Spurs is so important not only because it changes up offensive and defensive looks for the Spurs, possibly befuddling the other team for a few possessions, but because for several minutes at a time, at different positions, there can be a higher level of intensity - even in the regular season. The bench players come in fresh, and have more available energy than either teams' starters. Things can be a little bit faster, and sharper. Defense can be a little bit closer, and quicker. And because they know that they will be playing fewer minutes, they can play at a faster average speed.

Is Boris Diaw at 80% going to match up well against Robin Lopez at 80% - especially when it comes to rebounding? No. But take Boris at 90% against Lopez at 70%, and he makes him look slow, and even ground-bound. Is Baynes a straight up good matchup against Aldridge? No way. Aldridge is so much better. But for a few minutes at a time, operating at a high level against a fatigued opponent, Baynes can look like an All-Star.

Is Patty Mills a match for a defender with the athleticism and length of Russell Westbrook? No way. But take Patty operating with energy and effort, against Westbrook, trying to conserve some energy, or recover a bit to be able to perform on offense, and Patty can make him pay for being a step slow or sloppy. And when the starter comes back in at that position, HE is a little bit faster, and sharper for a few possessions. This is what we get when the bench is able to come in and get stops and score in bunches. And when the bench is unable to get it done, either because somebody on the other team goes off offensively or the bench is missing their shots or throwing it away, or they aren't bringing the intensity - they seem more pedestrian.

The Spurs are more accustomed to playing at a faster speed because they have had the luxury of enough energy to practice playing at faster speeds -- all because of their bench. If a team is used to playing defense against the Knicks, and Carmelo Anthony gets the ball, a post player might stand in good defensive position on his man for 5 or 10 seconds as Melo leans over, faks a shot, jab steps, puts the ball on the floor, and then finally maybe deciding to throw it into the post.

But as that same post player defends the Spurs, in 3 seconds the ball could have been passed 5 times with the angle to the entry pass changing each time. Meanwhile his man just won't stay still and here comes a screen, and another screen. Go over, under, through? Half front, 3/4 front, play behind, to the right shoulder, left? The Spurs "run the other team off the court", but it isn't a devastating show of sheer speed and athleticism.

The Spurs offense is designed so that defenders have to make decisions quickly. They wear you down, and then they require you to make decision after decision followed by athletic action after action, for a full 24 seconds. It is intense. You may get it right on the first 5 decisions and screw up the 6th. Basket. You may play perfect D on your man in every way, and your teammate makes a mistake. Basket. Frustration.

The Spurs put pressure on playmakers with their D and show them different looks that REQUIRE decisions to be made. And as the game goes on, typically, the decision making gets worse. The mental fatigue sets in. The physical fatigue sets in. "You can't make mistakes against this team or they will make you pay." Never too fast, never too slow, make the next pass, make the right decision, and play with pace. That's the Spurs way.