3 Ways Popovich Beat the Heat

With the NBA season set to officially kick off tonight, it seems like a good time to look back on the last meaningful set of basketball games: the 2014 NBA Finals. After four months of time, the emotions of that one-sided series have dissipated, and we can begin to analyze exactly how the Heat succumbed so easily to the older and less flashy San Antonio Spurs. With each team coming off a tough 6 game series, Vegas had the odds roughly even. But upon a closer look, what we discover is that Popovich’s management of his players and their fatigue, both throughout the season and each game, gave the Spurs a clear advantage and enabled his team to handily outperform the best player in the world.

June 5th. Game 1 of the Finals, now infamously known as Cramp-gate, was a clear example of exactly how heat and exhaustion can alter the outcome of games down the stretch. Compared to the later games, the first game was a hotly contested battle up until the final few minutes (no pun intended). LeBron James was on pace to lead the game in minutes played by a wide margin, and was the only active Heat player with a +/– that was not negative. But, in one of the more bizarre developments in NBA Playoff history, the air conditioning at the AT&T Center stopped working. Temperatures began to climb. “It got to a couple different guys, cramps started setting in, but I thought Pop continued to switch guys in and out and keep us as fresh as possible,” said Spurs C Tim Duncan. On the other side, with stadium temperatures still climbing to near 90°F, LeBron stayed in. The minutes clocked began to take their toll. After playing only five minutes in the fourth quarter, LeBron was carried off the court while in agony over debilitating cramps. Ironic that in this case, the heat beat the Heat.

Leg cramps are often the direct result dehydration and muscle fatigue. Simply put, LeBron’s desire for victory outpaced his body’s ability to deal with these conditions. LeBron even admitted that despite his hydration efforts, “I lost all the fluids that I was putting in the last couple of days out there on the floor.” That no other player reached this point is a direct result of LeBron’s intensity of play and the amount of time he spent on the floor. It also speaks volumes as to the ability of even the most finely tuned human body to thermoregulate itself in heat and humidity. Despite his elite training team’s best efforts and access to plenty of liquid replenishment, LeBron could not rehydrate fast enough to keep playing.

LeBron’s tenacity enabled Popovich to attack the Heat’s weakness (depth) by exhausting their biggest advantage (LeBron). This brilliant game plan can be seen in three ways:

  1. Long-term health management.

    It is widely known that the Spurs for the 2013-2014 season were the first team ever to not have a single player average over 30 minutes per game. In comparison, the Big Three all averaged over 30 minutes per game. An even more telling statistic, however, is total minutes played during the 2013-2014 season. Both teams sat their ailing starters throughout the season (Wade played in only 54 games total), but whereas the Spurs had a deep roster to pick up the slack, the Heat had to make up for Wade’s loss by playing James and Bosh even more. Compared to Duncan (the Spur with the most total minutes), James and Bosh clocked in 750 and 400 more minutes of playing time respectively. Let that sink for a second: that translates to 20 extra full games for James and 12 for Bosh! In a season only 80 games in length, this is a massive difference. Tack on the previous three seasons of NBA Finals and the Olympics, and the exhaustion component becomes undeniable. The Spurs were better managed throughout the year to compete down the stretch.

  2. Deep and dynamic bench.

    Throughout the 2014 NBA Finals, the Spurs depth enabled them to field eight different players that averaged over 20 minutes per game, compared to the Heat’s six. Additionally, the Spurs had five players that averaged double digit points, compared to three for the Heat; and, of those five, two (Mills and Ginobili) weren’t even starters! Popovich also showed the depth of his team by favoring the fresher Diaw even though Splitter saw a greater deal of work throughout the season.

  3. Attacking his opponent’s weak point.

    Knowing that he had an advantage because of deeper bench and the long-term health of his team, the game plan was straightforward: wear down the Heat, in particular their top players. The air conditioning failure only accelerated this effort. The rest of the series, the Spurs furiously whipped the ball around the court with their efficient passing game, exhausting the frantic defense of the Heat. And, without any depth to replace their exhausted starters, the Heat indeed withered. Others have written about the beauty of the Spurs passing attack throughout the series, but the oft-overlooked piece was its effect on the Heat offense. Studies have shown that with dehydration and exhaustion comes decreased focus and precision, critical components to offensive efficiency. The Heat just could not score. James ended the series averaging 28.2 points and 4 assists, but Wade and Bosh averaged only 15.2/2.6 and 14/1 points/assists respectively while no other Heat player averaged double digit points. In the 2013 Finals, which the Heat won, the Heat had five total players in double digits, and the Big Three combined for 6 more assists per game than in 2014.

Good luck getting Pop to admit it, but it seems he may know something we don’t. Maybe a balanced and cohesive team of well-rested players is the NBA’s new secret sauce. The creation of Miami’s Big Three ushered in an era where teams focused on a small core of superstars rather than on depth at all five positions and into the bench. This approach clearly worked in the past for the Heat, bringing them to four NBA finals in as many years, but as science and statistics increasingly reveal the debilitating effects of dehydration and fatigue, don’t be surprised to see the balanced and fresh Spurs right there again, defying conventional commentary about age and whipping the ball past exhausted “superstars.”

The next time you hear about the Spurs giving players a game off during the regular season, remember that fighting fatigue requires a multipronged approach, combatting it in both the short run and the long run. In future posts, we’ll explore how this practice is increasingly becoming the norm in other sports, and how new technologies (including Qore Performance) are enabling athletes to better understand and break through their previous limitations.

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