The season we're having after all
With a compressed 66-game slate, we get more tasty matchups and less filler
Here comes the best byproduct of the lockout: a 66-game schedule with less padding, more action condensed into fewer days, and even a touch of NFL-style variable schedule strength.
With 126 days to fit it all in between Christmas and April 26, your favorite team will play an average of once every two days. Sometimes teams will even play three days in a row. About the only break in the action is the four-day gap for the All-Star Game, which will be held in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 26. The one thing that sticks in your mind when you look at each team's schedule is the frequency of games. It's relentless.
Even though 16 games have been lopped off the schedule for each team, you knew the NBA would do everything possible to keep its television partners happy and preserve as many marquee matchups as possible. That means you'll still get two rematches of that great Mavericks-Heat Finals, starting on opening night on ABC. There will be a double-dose of Lakers-Heat (Jan. 19 on TNT and March 4 on ABC), Lakers-Celtics (Feb. 9 on TNT and March 11 on ABC) and Lakers-Knicks (Dec. 29 on TNT and Feb. 10 on ESPN). You'll get two referendums on the trade that sent Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder and Jeff Green to the Celtics (Jan. 16 in Boston on TNT and Feb. 22 in Oklahoma City on ESPN).
That's in addition to some of the intraconference showdowns such as Celtics-Knicks to begin the season on Christmas Day and Celtics-Heat two days later.
The flip side is that teams that aren't big ratings draws don't have to face powerhouses from the opposing conference twice. The Indiana Pacers squeaked into the playoffs by two games last season, and this season, two of their three extra nonconference matchups come against nonplayoff teams (they get New Orleans, Minnesota and Golden State twice). That's unlike, say, the Heat, who face playoff opponents in each of their nonconference doubles (Dallas, Oklahoma City and the Lakers). It carries a hint of the NFL, where schedules are unbalanced based on the past season's record, and can sometimes facilitate last-place-to-first-place turnarounds.
Speaking of turnarounds, teams will have to recharge quickly in the 2011-12 season. It's the return of the back-to-back-to-back games, which were last seen in the lockout-shortened 1999 season. Nine teams will face the dreaded "double-triple": two sets of back-to-back-to-backs. Those unfortunate squads are San Antonio, Portland, Phoenix, New Jersey, Minnesota, the L.A. Clippers, Indiana, Detroit and Atlanta. For the most part the games on three consecutive days aren't excessively grueling, either a short flight sandwiched between home games or a logical, one-directional itinerary such as Indianapolis to Washington to Charlotte.
The Nuggets have one of the worst triples: at the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 2, back home to face the Lakers on Feb. 3, then at Portland on Feb. 4. Boston might have the worst of all: three straight road games from April 13 to15, in Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte. How will the Celtics hold up for that stretch near the end of what's sure to be a very tiring season?
The Lakers might not be any better served by having their back-to-back-to-back games come at the outset of the season. They haven't played any basketball that mattered since May, and they're getting asked to jump right in and play three in a row. Even the weeks that pass for normal in this season will be packed, which puts health at a premium.
"Whoever can minimize injuries and play their guys is going to be ahead of the game," a Western Conference coach said. "If a guy goes down, it could be the difference between home court, or seeding."
What if Dirk Nowitzki were to suffer a sprained right knee as he did last year? He didn't play from Dec. 28 until Jan. 14 last season because of the injury, and the Mavericks went 2-7 in those nine games. If he missed those same dates this season it would cause him to be out for 11 games. Those could easily be two more losses for a team that enjoyed home-court advantage over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals on the basis of a mere two regular-season games last season.
The one thing this season can't offer is something for everyone in every NBA town. Teams will visit only nine cities in the opposite conference. That means the Miami Heat Hate-On-Us Tour won't stop in San Antonio, New Orleans, Sacramento, Phoenix or Memphis. If the Lakers land another superstar to go with Kobe Bryant, you won't get a chance to see them in Chicago, Cleveland, Indiana, Charlotte, New Jersey or Atlanta. Kevin Durant stopped by Rucker Park in New York this summer, but he won't play in Madison Square Garden during the winter.
There's something else missing from this version of schedule day: We can't pinpoint when the grand returns will be, because we don't know which players will be returning where. Usually the league knows the major offseason transactions before it sets the schedule, which is why Shaq's first game against Kobe was on Christmas and LeBron's first trip back to Cleveland wound up on national TV. The lockout forced the NBA to schedule first, then discover the significance later.
So maybe Lakers at Orlando on Jan. 20 could be bigger than it seems right now. Perhaps Tyson Chandler will have to wait for Golden State's visit to Dallas on April 20 to formally receive his championship ring.
We don't know when the big moments are coming. We won't see everyone everywhere. But you'll see so much basketball so often, you might not even notice.
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