MIAMI – Shane Battier remembers it like it was yesterday.
He was on the Memphis Grizzlies back in 2011 and his team had just upset the mighty San Antonio Spurs in the first-round of the playoffs in six games. The Grizzlies were the eighth-seed that season and they had just topped the top-seeded Spurs at home in Memphis on a Friday.
Have one measly day off on Saturday and then face off against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals on Monday. That seemed a bit unfair considering the Thunder had three days worth of fresh legs after they wrapping up their opening series against the Nuggets in just five games.
So, the eighth-seeded Grizzlies went to OKC to face a well-rested, higher-seeded team on their home floor with almost no turnaround. And what happened?
“We were so jacked from beating the Spurs that we had great carryover and we actually stole Game 1,” Battier said.
This is the tale that Battier brings up when he’s asked where he stands on the eternal rest vs. rust debate. The lesson, of course, is that sometimes no rest is just what a team needs. Indeed, the Grizzlies took Game 1 by 13 points before dropping the series in seven games.
But this is just one little anecdote and even though he relayed the story, that alone doesn’t fully satisfy the sensibilities of the empirically-inclined Battier.
So when does rest become rust? He still wavers on where the sweet spot lies, if it exists at all.
“I’ve been on both sides of it,” Battier said. “It’s what you make of it, I guess. I don’t know.”
Another data point will be Monday when the Heat tip off against the winner of the Nets-Bulls series for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Heat will have had seven days of rest, which should help Dwyane Wade, who missed Game 4 of the first-round against the Bucks, as he rehabs from a bruised right knee. But the others? LeBron James isn’t happy about the layoff, Chris Bosh is “whatever” about it and Erik Spoelstra is expectedly “no excuses” about the cards that they’ve been dealt.
But they won’t be the first team in playoff history to have a week off. Thanks to NBA.com’s StatsCube, we can look this stuff up. In the past ten postseasons, 13 teams have had at least seven days off between playoff games, including seven teams with exactly seven days off like the Heat.
How’d those teams fare in their next game? They went a total of 9-4. Remember, these teams would have to be pretty good to have earned that long vacation, so it’s no surprise that they have registered a good record in those well-rested games.
But there’s a reason why James isn’t a fan of the long layoff. His Cavs squad lost to the Orlando Magic in 2008-09 after eight days off between the Eastern Conference semifinals and the finals. The Game 1 loss came against a Magic team that had two days off to prepare and the Cavs, who won a whopping 66 games that season, ended up losing the series in six games. Oddly enough, it was the second eight-day layoff for James that postseason (they beat the Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals).
And Wade? The rest may be needed now, but it didn’t help in his sophomore year in the league. In the 2004-05 playoffs, the Heat swept the Washington Wizards in four games in the Eastern Conference semifinals to earn an eight-day hiatus before facing the Detroit Pistons in the following round. Wade scored 42 points in the Game 4 clincher over the Wizards, but scored just 16 points on 7-for-25 shooting against Detroit in Game 1. The Heat lost that game and the series in seven games.
So is seven-day layoff too much of a good thing?
It appears that might be the case. A couple years ago, ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton studied the issue at his former digs at Basketball Prospectus, and his research revealed something interesting: statistically-speaking, better-rested teams do seem to enjoy an advantage, but that benefit doesn’t show for the favorites (higher-seeded teams). Looking at playoffs from 2000 to 2008, teams like the Heat do just about as well as they could have expected with normal rest, but lower-seeded teams with more R&R have outperformed expectations.
Ultimately, history shows that the Heat might show a bit of rust on Monday. But for a team that has lost twice in three months, it’s probably a good bet that the more recent history will prevail.