BY BRIAN MAHONEY
Isaiah Thomas’ debut with Cleveland last week came with the same rules as when Kawhi Leonard rejoined the Spurs.
His coach could use him, just not too much.
Both were playing under the dreaded minute restrictions, which coaches learn to accept but will never learn to love.
“It really is a pain in the neck,” San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich said.
Popovich has dealt with it this season with Leonard, Tony Parker and Danny Green. In their cases, as well as Thomas, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and others returning from injuries, the team’s medical staff gives the coach guidelines for how much workload they can handle and how often — a challenge even for a coach who’s been at the forefront of resting players.
“It’s difficult because it’s very strange to try to figure out rotations. You can’t do it,” Popovich said. “You want to put somebody on the court, but you can’t because of minutes, so you put somebody else on the court that shouldn’t be on the court based on matchups or what you’re trying to do defensively or offensively. So it’s really a mishmash.”
It hinders teams trying to develop a rhythm, but also affects the individual players by slowing the rebuilding of their conditioning once they return. That’s what Minnesota’s Tom Thibodeau faced in Chicago when Derrick Rose came back from the knee injuries that hampered him in his final years, causing friction between a front office and coach that weren’t on the same page.
“Sometimes you have older players, so you’ll cut their minutes back. Sometimes you have younger players so you’re going to play them more,” Thibodeau said. “If a guy’s coming off injury, you want to see where he is first, see where his conditioning is. So pacing a team, I think only the head coach really has an understanding of where you are with the team.”
Popovich doesn’t try to work out the math to maximize the minutes, joking that he can’t add or subtract.
“We all get like 14 assistants, don’t we?” Popovich said. “And they’re all around and, ‘So and so’s got to come out, he’s played seven minutes straight, and you’re a minute and a half over.'”
COMING UP THIS WEEK
Clippers at Golden State, Wednesday. Stephen Curry had a season-high 45 points last Saturday when the Warriors beat the Clippers for the 12th straight time.
Boston vs. Philadelphia, Thursday. The Atlantic Division rivals play this year’s regular-season game in London.
Cleveland at Toronto, Thursday. The first meeting since the Cavs swept the Raptors in the second round comes with Toronto 14-2 at home.
DeMar DeRozan is in a sizzling stretch of what might be the best season of his career.
“He’s kind of in that kind of money zone right now, just playing great basketball,” Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson said.
Just wait a couple years.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey thinks DeRozan’s best is yet to come, as he grows more confident in the 3-point shot he’s shooting with confidence this season.
DeRozan scored a franchise-record 52 points during a Jan. 1 victory over Milwaukee and went on to win Eastern Conference player of the week for the third time this season, averaging a league-best 35.7 points. Long a mid-range shooter, he’s comfortably launched from farther back in his ninth season and is hitting 37 percent behind the arc.
Casey recalls Kobe Bryant saying his best basketball came more than a decade into his career, and he sees a similarity with DeRozan.
“I think DeMar’s years are way ahead in front of him. He’s going to continue to get better,” Casey said, noting that DeRozan can still soar above the rim but also plays under control.
“So I just see him transforming his game, probably more 3-point shots as much as anything else as he gets older, and so many guys in our league have done that. The older they got, the slower the game became and the better players they became.”
It lacks the hype of the Christmas schedule, but the Martin Luther King Jr. slate might be better.
It’s certainly bigger, with 11 games next Monday compared to the five that were played on Dec. 25. Like Christmas, it’s highlighted by the NBA Finals rematch, this time with Golden State going to Cleveland after beating the Cavaliers at home last month.
That’s the middle game of a tripleheader on TNT that’s capped by Chris Paul’s first game at Staples Center against the Clippers since Houston acquired him in the summer.
STAT LINE OF THE WEEK
Manu Ginobili, Spurs. With 26 points Sunday in a loss at Portland, Ginobili joined Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Stockton and Robert Parish as the only players 40 or older to score 25 points in a game.
For more NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball
Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.