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The 2017 - 2018 NBA conference finals have had several blowouts where by the start of the 4th quarter one team is clearly going to win; yet stars are playing many of these garbage minutes. To put an example just right now the Warriors are winning by 25, 8 minutes left, in the 3rd game of the Western Conference finals. However; Curry, Thompson, Harden, ... were all playing. Same for LeBron James in some losses against Boston. They eventually go to the bench, but much later than I would expect.

Why not bench them earlier? In the playoffs you want your stars rested and not stat-padding.

6

As it is mentioned in the question, the stars are pulled out with a few minutes left in the game. How early they are pulled depends on the point differential, the coach, and the team's momentum.

In the NBA teams often go on runs where they outscore the other team by a wide margin in just a few minutes. It is not uncommon to see a team outscore their opponents by 20 points in as short as a time span as 6 minutes. So even if a team is down like the Rockets were against the Warriors in the game you mentioned at the beginning of the fourth quarter, they'd still have a chance to win, but it's a slim chance. So for that reason the coaches keep their star players in as long as they feel like they can go on a run and have a chance to win. Or on the other hand if they're up, they'll do so if they know they can win with the bench players.

The momentum of the game also matters. You'll see the star players get pulled out earlier if the point differential is getting larger in the 4th quarter. This is because the team that's down needs to slow down the leading team and start dominating which is harder than if they were already cutting down the point differential.

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Wikipedia lists quite a few comebacks from deficits of 25+ points in the 3rd or even early 4th quarter. The odds are certainly small that a team would turn it around, but even a glimmer of hope to win an extra game in a series seems monumental.

Additionally, by pulling your starters you encourage the opponents to do so as well. By keeping your stars playing, you also motivate the opponents to do so as well. Otherwise they may give up a mismatch that might be exploited to make up ground. So therefore it seems there'd generally be no actual gain from resting players earlier, as opponents would generally gain just as much rest.

Teams may well wait longer than is reasonable. But often effort wanes long before. Some players might well be accused of resting/taking it a bit easy... even if they're still technically in the game in such situations!

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