Posted Dec 6 2011 3:18PM - Updated Dec 6 2011 9:24PM
NBA fans have 66 games per team crammed into four months, with basketball guaranteed almost every night of the week. If the NBA was dark for the lockout, the league will more than make up for that inactivity with this condensed and somewhat crazed 2011-12 schedule.
Honestly, it doesn't get busier than this. Whether "busy" means "better," we'll see. But there will be basketball, and plenty of it, between Christmas Day and late April. Back-to-back games will become the new norm for all teams, along with four-games-in-five-nights. And games on three consecutive nights, which every team must endure at least once, will challenge hamstrings and lungs.
"Those back-to-back-to-backs will be tough for every team," said the Hawks' Josh Smith. "We're a young team, but we get tired, too."
Not every team will play each other at least twice; such is the casualty of the lockout. The number of meetings between conference teams was also trimmed. But for the most part, the league made sure the popular teams would meet more than once. There was no chance, for example, the Heat wouldn't see the Lakers. Remember, the league is trying to reel in the audience, not chase it away. Therefore, you will see the games you want to see.
There are 42 back-to-back-to-back games in the overall schedule. Each team has at least one of these "triples," some more than one. There were 64 triples in 1999 in a 50-game season, which makes this season less taxing in that regard. In all, the 30 teams have 529 back-to-back games.
The schedule-makers had the complex and touchy job of trying to satisfy the networks, teams and fans, a process slightly less tricky than getting the union and owners to agree on a labor deal.
Anyway, it's necessary to examine the contenders and the schedule challenges they face. Let's begin.
They may be proud and championship-tested and veteran-smart and all that. But they're also gray at the temples. And the schedule will be an endurance test for the Celtics and others with a nucleus (Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in Boston's case) well into their 30s. Ice bags and muscle relaxers will be plentiful and handy to keep the Celtics fresh as possible for the playoffs.
Their triple: April 13-15 at Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte, which is actually mild from a competitive standpoint.
Their back-to-backs: 19, a bit on the high side, but nothing cruel in terms of overnight travel distances.
Their killer stretch: They play nine of 10 on the road in March, just when the body begins to ache and the postseason is in sight.
Key games: Miami and Chicago four times each, Thunder, Mavericks and Lakers twice.
With Derrick Rose coming off an MVP season and the Bulls certainly wiser from being bounced from the playoffs by Miami, Chicago hopes to make a habit of deep postseason runs. Well, we'll know more about the Bulls right away, with seven of their first nine games on the road. But they only play the Lakers and Thunder once each.
Their killer stretch: A nine-game road swing from late January through mid-February, with stops in Miami, Philly, New York and ending in Boston. Some nights will feel like playoff nights for sure.
The defending champs, who have their fair share of age, must cope with 20 back-to-backs, although their triple (Suns, Kings, Warriors) isn't gruesome. They play the Thunder and Lakers four times each, Heat and Celtics twice.
Their killer stretch: Right before the All-Star break, when they play at Philly and New York, then return home for Boston and the Lakers.
They open with a triple, although the Christmas blockbuster with the Bulls is followed by the Kings and Jazz, providing the Lakers somewhat of a cushion. But remember this: Andrew Bynum won't be around; he must sit the first five games for cheap-shotting J.J. Barea last spring.
The Lakers must also pay a personal price for being the league's marquee team, having to work Christmas, New Years Eve and New Year's Day. There are three games with the Thunder and 2 with Miami.
Their killer stretch: In January, home vs. Dallas, then on the road against Miami and Orlando. That's a tough stretch only if Dwight Howard is still in Orlando.
Last season the Big Three had a rough start to their new and controversial era, stumbling out of the gate at 9-8 and causing all sorts of water-cooler and Internet conversation. Well, only five of their first 12 games are against returning playoff teams. And yeah, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh sort of know each other a little better now. They play the Thunder twice, Celtics and Bulls four times each. The Heat play 18 of their final 29 games in the Eastern time zone.
The Dilemma: There are two off days between road games in Indiana and Cleveland. Does Miami and LeBron dare spend those days walking the streets of Cleveland?
Their killer stretch: They play Boston twice, Philly, Oklahoma City, Chicago and Memphis in a six-game April span.
The Garden is undergoing a pricey renovation, where the architects made the insensitive decision to eliminate the Willis Reed tunnel. Hopefully for the Knicks' sake, they create a new landmark soon enough. Anyway, home will feel like home, since the Knicks play no more than four straight on the road all season. There are 19 back-to-backs.
Speaking of home: There will be no "homecoming" for Carmelo Anthony or Amar'e Stoudemire, since the Knicks won't visit Denver or Phoenix.
Their killer stretch: At Boston, then the Mavericks and Spurs in March.
This will be the first full season with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins, who figured to be joined by an improving surrounding cast. That should be enough for basketball to overtake football in Oklahoma pretty quickly.
The Rematch: They play at Memphis just three games into the new season. Surely you recall that epic seven-game playoff series?
Their killer stretch: In February, when they'll see the Celtics, Lakers, at Philly and Orlando, then the Hawks and Mavericks.
Those are the meatier parts of the schedule. But there are other diversions. The Nets' final game in New Jersey is April 23 against the Sixers before moving on to Brooklyn next season.
Deron Williams, meanwhile, will return to Utah, the site of his forced exit last year, on January 14. Also, make sure to catch Chris Paul in New York on February 17.
Unless, of course, Paul is a Knick by then.
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