Contenders say rest more important than No. 1 seed
Posted: Monday March 27, 2006 12:43PM; Updated: Monday March 27, 2006 12:58PM
Chauncey Billups and the Pistons have only two fewer losses than the Spurs in the race for home court advantage througout the playoffs.
Marty Burns will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
Health or home court?
That's the question for Pistons coach Flip Saunders. With his team's lead in the race for the NBA's best overall record having shrunk to just 1½ games over the Spurs and Mavs, he now has to choose whether to rest his stars or keep pushing for the top spot -- and the resulting prize of home court advantage throughout the playoffs.
"We can't get carried away enough that we start playing all of our guys 41 minutes a night to get the Number 1 seed," Saunders said. "Then they won't have anything left when time comes."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Mavs coach Avery Johnson face much the same dilemma. Locked in a pitched battle for best record in the West, neither can afford to lose a game. But the Spurs have concerns about nagging injuries to Tim Duncan (foot) and Manu Ginobili (leg), while the Mavs have lingering health issues with key players Josh Howard, Adrian Griffin, Keith Van Horn and Devin Harris.
For San Antonio and Dallas, members of the same Southwest Division, the stakes are enormous. Because of the way the NBA seeds playoff teams, the loser would slip all the way to No. 4 in the seedings (behind the three division winners). That means a likely first-round matchup against the dangerous Clippers or Grizzlies instead of the Lakers or Kings. It also means a likely second-round matchup with the West's No. 1 team without benefit of home court advantage.
Like Saunders, however, Popovich and Johnson insist they will not risk wearing out their stars in an effort to get the top seed. "We've won championships with the best record and without, and other teams have done the same thing." Popovich said. "If you're the best team, you're going to get there."
Added Johnson, "We're not looking at anything like that right now. We would rather be healthy."
For Saunders, there is added pressure to finish with the best overall record. The Pistons have been the top team all season, and it would be a major disappointment to give up the No. 1 seed now. Plus, Pistons fans remember how their team lost Game 7 of the NBA Finals in San Antonio a year ago.
But Saunders also wants to make sure Detroit starters Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton can continue to play around their average of 35-37 minutes a night. He knows his team, if rested and healthy, can win a playoff series on the road. Two years ago Detroit beat the Lakers in the Finals without home court, and last year won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in Miami.
"I know last year [the Pistons] lost [Game 7]," Saunders said. "But the way the system is set up ... if [Robert] Horry doesn't hit that shot [in Game 5], everybody is saying home court doesn't mean anything because you would have won it in six."
While Saunders makes a valid point about Horry's shot, he might be glossing over the Game 7 factor a bit. Even mentally tough teams like the Pistons don't want to face that situation on the road. In NBA playoff history the home team for Game 7 has won 75 of 92 times (81.5 percent). In the Finals, the home team has won 13 of 16 (81.3).
The Pistons might have been close to winning in six games a year ago. But the fact is they lost Game 7 on the road. And they probably would have lost that Game 7 in Miami had Dwyane Wade not been battling a case of sore ribs.
That's why Saunders, Popovich and Johnson have some tough decisions in the days ahead. Health is definitely the main goal. But having a potential Game 7 on your home floor rates a close second.