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Last week the Sacramento Kings found themselves bruised and battered and--much worse--back-to-backed. Trying to keep pace with the San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics in the Western Conference, the Kings were in desperate need of a few days off to ease the sore left knee of power forward Chris Webber, the aching back of small forward Peja Stojakovic, the cranky right ankle of point guard Mike Bibby and the entire corpus of shooting guard Cuttino Mobley (back, ribs, groin, ankle). And if they couldn't get rest, then they at least needed time for a decent practice to search for cohesion with so many players going in and out of the lineup.
Instead, Sacramento was playing four games in five nights, bunched in two-game clusters known as back-to-backs, a torture endemic to the NBA. "Other than defending the pick-and-roll," says reigning MVP Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves, "back-to-backs are the most difficult thing in this league."
The Kings lost at home to the Sonics 106--101 on Feb. 1, then beat the Warriors 111-107 the following night in Oakland. After a day off they needed a combined 75 points from Bibby and center Brad Miller to squeak by the New York Knicks 116-115 in the friendly confines of Arco Arena; some 21 hours later, last Saturday night, they succumbed to the inferior Trail Blazers 114-108 in Portland.
The Blazers themselves were playing their fourth game in five nights, having beaten the expansion Charlotte Bobcats 101-89 at home on Friday night. But there are degrees of toughness in back-to-backs (chart, page 54), and Sacramento's home-then-road combination is the toughest. "The Kings had to do a lot of battling to win their first game, and then they had to get on a plane and come up here," said Portland guard Nick Van Exel, who combined with Damon Stoudamire for 53 points in Saturday's win. "We knew that. You definitely study the back-to-backs. We were waiting, and we went right after them."
Cue the chorus of cynics. All together now: Soooooo whaaaaat! Auto mechanics, teachers, chimney sweeps--all have work schedules that are back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Plus, NBA players fly on charter jets that would please a Turkish pasha, stay in first-class hotels, ride cushy buses to and from arenas and airports, and get paid millions to drag their behinds up and down 94 feet of hardwood.
True. But in no other sport--indeed, in few other professions--is the grind so extreme and the wear and tear as concentrated as it is in the NBA, and the worst of it is back-to-backs. NHL teams (when they're not locked out) endure them too, but with half the frequency. Baseball players may play more games in a row, but their sport is less physically demanding. And aside from travel days, they never bounce from city to city; they can actually hang up their clothes in a hotel room during a road stand and fall into some semblance of a routine. NBA players are leaves in the wind, at home tonight, in Houston tomorrow, at home two days later, in Denver the day after that.
By design, the number of back-to-backs generally diminishes as the season goes on, and they're rare in the playoffs, when the NBA spaces out its schedule to maximize television coverage. However, a team's character can be forged in those difficult winter months when it guts out W's in tough back-to-backs, when legs are tired and there's little time to prepare. Last year's champions, the Detroit Pistons, won the second leg of back-to-backs 15 of 23 times, and the 2003 champions, the San Antonio Spurs, won 13 of 18. "It's the time to make a statement in those second games," says Van Exel.
It's also the time for coaches to make hard decisions. Rest an injured player on the first night? Cancel a practice if a difficult back-to-back looms? Tell your team to fast-break against a back-to-backed opponent, even if your team isn't particularly strong in transition? "Back-to-backs are not only physically taxing," says Adelman, "they're mentally taxing too."
Not to mention a provocative topic in the National Bitching Association. "A young team like us gets loaded up on back-to-backs," says the Atlanta Hawks forward Kevin Willis, the senior member of that team--of the league, in fact--at 42. "The teams that are going to be on TV have to get their rest." He happens to be right. Along with the Chicago Bulls, the Hawks, by season's end, will have played the most back-to-backs (112) since 2000-01. They can also lay claim to the most nightmarish back-to-back so far this season. After losing 106-96 to the Miami Heat at home on Jan. 28, they got caught in an ice storm at the airport and didn't make it to Memphis until 5:45 the next night. The 7 p.m. tip-off was pushed back until 8, and Atlanta lost an 84-83 heartbreaker.
Even execs, coaches and players on good teams whisper that back-to-backs are doled out inequitably. (Such is their paranoia that they won't speak for attribution, lest they get back-to-backed to death on next year's schedule.) "The league was able to make sure Shaquille O'Neal and the Miami Heat played Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas Day," says one Western Conference coach, "so they can do anything they want with the schedule." The Los Angeles Clippers would seem to have a reasonable beef: By season's end they will have played 107 back-to-backs over five years, which is not only more than any other Western Conference team but also 12 more than the team with whom they share Staples Center, the Lakers. Isn't it hard enough being a Clipper without getting slapped around by the schedule?