The Celtics were in the midst of playing three games in four nights, two of them back-to-back against the same division opponent. The more they play against a young Philadelphia squad recently, the more they seem to feed the Sixers’ burgeoning confidence. So, naturally, the Celtics and Sixers played an extra five minutes on Friday, except the Sixers did not merely come out of the game with confidence. They also came out with a win.
Even with Andrew Bynum sidelined with a laundry list of knee issues, the Sixers are capable of giving the Celtics fits, as they proved last year in the regular season and playoffs. No matter the opponents, though, the Celtics were bound to have trouble with the stretch that began Wednesday against the Timberwolves and concludes Saturday against the Sixers at the TD Garden. Back-to-backs are demanding enough. Three games in four days are brutal, and the Celtics are getting familiar with the pain and fatigue that comes with them.
Starting Nov. 28 against the Nets, the Celtics began a 24-day span in which they play on consecutive nights four times and play three games in four nights four times. Fortunately for their joints, they have several opportunities to recuperate, such as three-day breaks this week and next. But when a player is logging his 90th minute of playing time in 72 hours, his body is not always aware an extended rest is coming.
This is why Spurs coach Gregg Popovich‘s decision to send four players home instead of making them play a fourth game in five days was not only defensible, it was laudable. Popovich recognized that resting key players like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker for one game would help the Spurs win more games in the long run by keeping those players rested and healthy.
The results have vindicated him. The Spurs had won seven of their last eight games entering Friday — with the lone loss being the game in Miami when San Antonio’s stars rested. Expecting players to perform well when they are worn out physically and mentally is simply not realistic, although they try.
“It’s tough,” Celtics forward Jeff Green said in the middle of one of these three-game, four-night periods. “What [the Spurs] had is four games in five nights. You’re playing the best competition and it’s tough on your body. The rest is needed, and it’s tough to get rest when you’re flying from city to city, then getting into each city at 2 a.m., 3 a.m. You’ve got to adjust. You’ve got to scale back from time to time and read your body.”
Here is where some tough guy can grumble about multimillionaire athletes whining about having to play a sport too often and all his equally tough friends can yell, “Yeah!” before crushing beer cans on their foreheads. Nobody was whining, least of all Green when he was asked about the demands of a schedule that at times is inexplicably condensed.
In January, for instance, the Celtics play on consecutive nights twice, but in February, the shortest month, they do so four times — making the four-day All-Star break not just helpful, but necessary. After the break they will play five road games out west in seven nights, and from March to early April they play three games in four nights five times.
The NBA implicitly admits that this sort of schedule is not conducive to peak athletic performance by rarely scheduling back-to-back games in the playoffs, when the games really matter. If anybody honestly believes so many games in a short period of time should not affect play, they should ask themselves why the conference finals and finals can take more than a month to complete.
Add in the wrinkle of playing the same team on two straight nights and the situation gets more intriguing. Paul Pierce played nearly 45 minutes in Friday’s overtime loss to the Sixers, Jason Terry played close to 44 minutes and Rajon Rondo played a bit more than 42 minutes before he airballed the potential game-winning shot at the buzzer. Those guys had almost exactly 21 hours, 30 minutes to shower, dress, talk to reporters, travel back to Boston, get some sleep, be in Waltham for a Saturday morning shootaround and try to recharge in time for the game Saturday night. The only saving grace, in the eyes of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, was that it was all coming against a familiar foe that has now beaten his team twice this season.
“We’ve struggled playing Philly, so I love this stuff because the way I look at it, in my own demented way, that’s good,” Rivers said before his team left for Philadelphia. “I think those are all good things. I think it’s a good challenge for us, so it’ll be a lot of fun.”
In that case, congratulations, coach. You have a lot of masochistic fun ahead of you.