The Dallas Mavericks, on the other hand, will have had 86 back-to-backs over the same span, the league's fewest. Is that a meaningful advantage for the Mavs? Absolutely, says one Western Conference general manager: "It's a question of competitive balance. Every team should play between 15 and 18. It's never going to be exact, but it should be close."
To be fair--one hates to bring fairness into a paranoia-laced discourse-- NBA vice president of operations Matt Winick, the league's schedule maker for the last decade, does a reasonable job of distributing back-to-backs, considering he has to work schedules around tractor pulls, ice shows and rock concerts at the arenas, as well as around each team's desire to hold games on nights when crowds are likely to be large. He gives teams no more than 24 back-to-backs per season, while aiming for a minimum of 15; rarely sends a team more than one time zone away for the second game; and never schedules three games in a row. (Eastern teams, Winick concedes, generally have more back-to-backs because the cities there are closer together than those in the West.)
Even conspiracy theorists admit that back-to-backs are easier now because of team charters. "When those morning commercial flights were delayed, you'd get into a city like Chicago at 3:30 in the afternoon," remembers Charlotte Bobcats veteran Steve Smith. "There was no preparation, no eating right, no stretching." The further you go down memory lane, of course, the worse the stories get. Minnesota assistant coach Jerry Sichting recalls the 1983-84 season when his Indiana Pacers played at home on Friday night, took a commercial flight into Chicago and bused to Milwaukee for a game on Saturday night, then bused back to Chicago for a Sunday-afternoon game because the NHL Black Hawks had claim to Chicago Stadium that night. The Boston Celtics and the Baltimore Bullets used to play home-and-home back-to-backs in the 1950s that involved both teams' riding a train all night. "Today's back-to-backs are for wimps," says Orlando Magic vice president Pat Williams, who recalls the 1967-68 Chicago Bulls' playing five games in five nights in five cities.
"The whole back-to-back thing and how tough it is is very overstated," says coach Stan Van Gundy, whose Miami Heat had won five back ends of its eight back-to-backs through Sunday. "It becomes an excuse and a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's another game. Show up and play."
Some show up less than others, like the New Jersey Nets' Vince Carter. That's not shocking since Carter's effort has been denigrated from time to time, even by himself. The list of players who have lifted their scoring the most in the back end of a back-to-back has a surprise or two, including Raptors forward Donyell Marshall. But as Carter's Toronto teammate in many of those games, perhaps he needed to compensate for Vince's falloff.
Carter's weakness in back-to-backs has almost certainly been noted by the many coaches who study back-to-back performance. "There are definitely some alarming stats," says Bulls coach Scott Skiles, "but none that I want to make public, especially about my team." He must have shared them with his charges somewhere along the line: After losing the second game in their first four back-to-backs, the Bulls have now won four back-enders in a row. Skiles, like other coaches, will make concessions when confronted with a back-to-back: He never holds a morning shootaround on the second day of a back-to-back; he substitutes more freely in the first half of the first game of the set; he removes key players more quickly in a blowout. But there are limits. "You rest guys on the first night and end up losing that game just so you can have them fresh to maybe lose the second game?" says Adelman. "That doesn't make a lot of sense."
Though young players tend not to think much about back-to-backs--or anything else besides XBox--veterans look for every edge. Heeding the advice of Sam Mitchell and Doug West, his mentors on the Timberwolves when he broke in, Garnett said he makes a conscious effort to practice extremely hard on an off day between games because "it helps you mentally prepare for a back-to-back." Willis studies the schedule, looking for opponents who'll be playing back-to-backs at the end of a long road trip. "In that situation," said Willis, "they're just thinking about getting home." Charlotte's Smith makes careful note of the kind of team he's playing when the Bobcats have a second game in two nights. "The Spurs are great, but they're a walk-it-up team," says Smith, "so you'd rather have them [than a running team] on the second night."
Chicago power forward Antonio Davis says he would try to push the pace if an opponent had played a tough game the night before. That's exactly what Van Exel and the Trail Blazers did against Sacramento. "You can't have a heart," says Van Exel, "because somebody's going to do it to you. Probably soon."
As the Kings left the Rose Garden on Saturday night, they were disappointed but not crushed by the loss, having emerged from their back-to-back week with a 2-2 record. And there are worse things than a heavy menu of games. "Back-to-back practices," said Miller, "now there's something that's bad. Fortunately, with this schedule we don't get many of those." ?