The Heat got out of the first round today. They did so three days after the Celtics, giving Boston three extra days of rest before the next round. We don’t need to speculate over which team has an advantage because of this.
Every time a team sweeps in the first round, a few articles emerge raising the issue of whether or not this is bad for the sweeping team because of the ensuing days off. There have been a metric buttload of articles like this in the last five years, and they usually look something like this:
Rest vs. rust. The unsolvable question. The eternal enigma. Throughout sports history, ideological wars have been fought over whether it’s better for a team to have days off before a playoff series, or to sustain their rhythm by seamlessly blending the last game of the first round into the first game of the second round to form one giant game. Where do the (insert team) stand on this bloodstained battlefield?
“It’s rest,” says one player.
“It’s definitely rest,” said another player.
Back and forth these warring factions go, neither able to persuade the other. Will the two sides of this argument ever resolve their differences?
“The answer is rest,” said the first player again.
To present this as a debate at all is a bit specious, because I don’t think basketball people are really split on this issue. I honestly believe the discussion only exists because it gives people something to talk about over boring off days and the traditional phrasing of the debate is fun to say. It’s not that the extra days off have a profound positive effect, necessarily: it’s that the idea that they might hurt a team’s performance makes no sense and is totally unsupported by data.
The most-cited examples of days off costing a team a playoff series in recent years are the Mavs in 2007 and the Cavs in 2009. The top-seed Mavs blew the first round against the Warriors because, some people theorized, Avery Johnson rested his core after they clinched the West. Here are three better explanations:
A) The Warriors were the worst possible matchup for the Mavs, which is why Golden State swept the season series.
B) The Mavs were not as good as their record indicated because they won a huge number of close games.
C) Mark Cuban made a deal with a bunch of ABC execs to throw this series in exchange for a spot on “Shark Tank.”
That last explanation is not super likely, but I still take it over the rust factor. As for the Cavs series, Zydrunas Ilgauskas was not physically capable of stopping Dwight Howard and Mo Williams somehow made a negative percentage of his shots. Mo, you’ll recall, was the team’s second-best player and an All-Star (probably the result of a complicated prank, but still an All-Star). LeBron averaged 38.5 points in that series. How did he manage that after the extra days off caused his metal skin to oxidize, forming rust??
This is a cowardly, risk-free argument for me to make, because if the Celtics play badly in this series, it won’t visibly have anything to do with those extra three days. Still, until evidence shows up to suggest that too much rest is WORSE THAN a long series that results in fewer days off, I will hear none of it. On the other hand, there’s plenty of evidence that rest doesn’t hurt. Thanks Mark Cuban!