Saturday night in Denver, the Rockets took the floor for the 70th time this season. It was the second game of a back-to-back and the team’s third game in four nights. At this stage in the season, with the way the league is trending coupled with Denver’s altitude, a lot of team’s in that position would’ve thrown the game away and rested key players. The Rockets didn’t. Instead, they won the game, and if they are to make another deep run through the Western Conference Playoffs this spring, the refusal to giveaway games by sitting players could be a big reason why.
While the Rockets played in Denver, the Cleveland Cavaliers were in action in Los Angeles, at least some of them were. Ty Lue elected to rest LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in the first game of a back-to-back. March 12 in San Antonio, Steve Kerr sat most of his roster against the Spurs, and 48 hours prior, in the same situation the Rockets were in Saturday, the Clippers didn’t even bother to bring Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to Colorado. The DNP-Rest culture is more prevalent today than ever before among the NBA’s best teams, but the Rockets have not joined in.
In February, ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh wrote extensively about how teams are resting players and the benefits of it. In the piece, according to www.prosportstransactions.com, there were 69 DNP-Rests this season through February 13, up from 40 all of last season and 37 in 2014-15. It happened a total of 23 times the two seasons prior. Whatever the number finishes at this season, there’s no reason to think that it won’t go up next season or for the trend to stop anytime soon, but don’t expect the Rockets to be a reason why.
“I can’t afford to take nights off,” Rockets guard James Harden told NBA.com earlier this month. “That’s not what I get paid for. Obviously the money isn’t a factor, but I love playing the game of basketball. And quite frankly, I won’t be playing forever. So I’m just taking advantage of the opportunity while I’m here. I love being out there on the court helping my teammates and laying for the Houston Rockets.”
Harden has yet to miss a game this season after playing in all 82 games a year ago and 81 the year before. A suspension 2 years ago for kicking LeBron James is the only reason he’s missed a game in that stretch. Nobody carries a bigger load, and through Saturday, he has logged of 8,659 total minutes over the last three seasons, which is 471 more minutes than the guy behind him. That amounts to 10 extra games.
“First of all, I don’t think I could get (Harden) to go out of a game,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said in the same NBA.com piece. “He loves to play and he just won’t do it. I think he takes pride in playing all the games. Whether that’s good or not … he’s 27 years old and he feels good. So until he needs rest – and that comes from doctors and trainers and him – and I haven’t heard any of that at all.”
Trevor Ariza is not 27 years. He’s 31 with his 32nd birthday right around the corner. He’s playing in his 13th NBA season and like Harden has missed one game over the past three seasons. In that span, he’s the name directly below Harden’s in total minutes, one of just two other players with 8,000 minutes of floor time (John Wall is the other) over the past three seasons.
“(Ariza) is out there fighting with everyone,” Rockets guard Patrick Beverley told SportsRadio610 in December. “He’s banged up, damn near didn’t have a back a couple of games ago, but he was right in the lineup, played one of his best games.”
Ariza left the Rockets game on December 2, the second game of a back-to-back, with back spasms, and in this day and age at that point in the season, 99 percent of the league’s players would’ve taken a couple of games, or maybe even a week off. Ariza didn’t.
“I think that’s the character of this team,” Beverley said back then. “Nothing against anyone else, I understand this league is full of a bunch of games, but no one in this locker room is missing games because of rest. We want to get better.”
The Rockets have rested 34-year old Nene in back-to-backs this season, but they completed their 14th back-to-back of the season Saturday night in Denver. The team is an NBA best 13-1 when playing without a day of rest. They are one of eight teams with a winning record in that situation with the rest of the league owning a mark of 169-253 through March 18 per teamrankings.com. Instead of tossing these games aside and taking a “schedule loss”, the Rockets are going to put their best foot forward in all 82 games this season, and it could turn out to pay major dividends.
Let’s say the Rockets play at a league average clip in the second game of a back-to-back, that drops that 13-1 to 6-8, so instead of 48-22, third place in the West, they’d be 41-29, tied with the Clippers for 5th place, just a game out of 7th. Cleveland is just 5-9 in those games and they are barely hanging onto the 1-seed in the east, and things are tight between Golden State and San Antonio for the West’s top seed, but hey, let’s be honest, in an 82-game season, what’s one or two games?
Remember when the Rockets finished with the 2-seed in the Western Conference playoffs in 2015? That season, they were 12-8 in the second game of a back-to-back. Had they gone 11-9, the Rockets would’ve been seeded 6th. One game can mean an awful lot.