The Denver Nuggets blew out the SuperSonics in Seattle last week by 42 points, 138-96. The 138 points scored were the most in one game in the NBA this season, and the Nuggets were thrilled to be the squad to do it. Seven weeks earlier, George Karl's club had given up the previous high, 137 points, in a 137-115 humiliation at Phoenix.
The best team in the Eastern conference? Boston has the best record, but a lot of experts will tell you that it's the Detroit Pistons. And yet the Pistons absorbed their worst loss of the season, an 89-65 abasement, against the league's most dysfunctional team, the New York Knicks.
Chalk up each of these incidents to the vicissitudes of the NBA's 82-game schedule? To a degree, yes. However, the aforementioned outcomes have something in common. Each was the second of back-to-back games played on consecutive nights. It's the NBA's dirty little — and most predictable — scheduling secret.
"I think the back-to-back thing is by far the most overblown excuse in the NBA," says ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who was an NBA head coach for a little over 10 seasons. "Why should games on consecutive nights be a problem? Because the other team's more rested? That's no excuse."
In fact, playing back-to-back nights on the road is in some ways a boon to players. "I get to sleep this morning," New Orleans forward David West said on Tuesday as his Hornets prepared to play the Knicks just 24 hours after losing at Washington.
"On a normal game day, I'd have to get up early for shoot-around."
And yet, the anecdotal and statistical evidence strongly suggests that teams fare worse when playing games on consecutive nights. The overall league win percentage is, by definition, .500. However, in consecutive games played from the start of the season through the end of February, the league is winning at a .437 clip. Of the six most lopsided losses that have occurred this season, five took place during a back-to-back game. The sixth, a 45-point loss by Milwaukee, occurred against the Pistons, who happen to be responsible for a lot of teams' worst losses (a league-best seven) this season.
A horrible excuse
Van Gundy acknowledges that teams do play worse back to back, but insists that mental toughness is the root of the problem.
"You don't get beaten by 40 points in this league if you're ready to play," he says. "You get beat by 40 because you let go of the rope."
In other words, it's an excuse if you let it become one.
"Have you ever flown out of Denver?" Van Gundy asks.
We have, and yes, the airport is located far, far to the east of downtown. As in, "Are we in Ogalalla, Neb., yet?" Whenever the Nuggets fly in or out of Denver, the team is looking at a 45-minute commute from the runway to the Pepsi Center. At least. That can wear on a team.
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