Posted Jan 9 2012 7:40PM
NBA teams are having an easy time with the hardest part of the compressed schedule.
Houston forward Chase Budinger even had his best game of the season when the Rockets played on a third straight night.
"To be honest, it wasn't too bad," he said.
Three games in three nights were thought to be too much for teams, who would trudge wearily to the finale with no energy and then spend little effort in losing it.
Some would mail it in, others would try to fight the fatigue, but the expectation was that most would fall.
Instead, they're undefeated.
NBA clubs improved to 6-0 in the third game of back-to-back-to-backs when Oklahoma City routed San Antonio 108-96 on Sunday night. The Thunder became the first team to sweep all three games, and sounded as if they were ready to go for four.
"I just think the big thing was not to dwell on it and not make too much out of it. It's not sometimes as bad as people think," said forward Nick Collison, who at 31 doesn't exactly own young legs by NBA standards.
The Lakers dropped their first two games of the season, then promptly beat Utah on Day 3. The Kings were a wreck when they reached their third of three in a row, having dropped the first two - which led to coach Paul Westphal getting fired earlier in the day. Then they wiped out a 21-point deficit and beat Milwaukee 103-100.
Atlanta went to three overtimes before losing to Miami to open its stretch, then had to survive another overtime to beat Charlotte the next night. All the Hawks did after all that basketball was crush Chicago, one of the league's best teams, 109-94.
So how come this hasn't been the barrier that was expected?
"I think every team takes it as a challenge," said Shane Battier, whose Miami Heat face theirs in mid-February. "Obviously, when you look at the schedule and say, `Man, I've got a back-to-back-to-back,' it's intimidating. But once you get in the arena, you take it as a personal challenge: `Hey, you know what, mentally weak teams are going to lose this third night. We're going to come out and play well.' So I think there's a placebo effect almost that makes you play better on the third night of your back-to-back-to-back."
Three games in three nights became necessary when the NBA and players sought to fit in as many games as possible with a Christmas start following the five-month lockout. They squeezed in 66 of the 82, but the price was a schedule that left little time for either rest or practice.
Back-to-back-to-backs hadn't been scheduled since 1999, following the last lockout, which is why Thunder coach Scott Brooks didn't know how his team would respond when it opened its stretch on Friday.
He's got the kind of roster that seemed likely to navigate it well, a good, young team with quality depth. The Thunder swept a home-and-home in the first two games from the Rockets, who probably weren't too rowdy back on New Year's Eve when they finished their trio by beating Atlanta a night after losing by 20 in Memphis.
"It was tiring to get to the second and third game. But it's part of the job. You've just got to go through your regular routine that day and just get focused and ready for the game," said Budinger, who scored a season-high 17 points against the Hawks.
"I think the worst part about it was the day after the three games in a row. It finally hits you after you get that day off. I just remember going to dinner that night and getting up from the dinner table, you could really feel it in your legs, and your whole body is really sore. That's when it really hits you, but it wasn't too bad playing in it."
The Denver Nuggets are the other team to win their third of three. A balanced team with plenty of firepower, they rank second in the league with 104 points per game, but won in a most un-Nuggets kind of way, beating Milwaukee 91-86 in a defensive struggle.
"It's a different game," Denver coach George Karl said. "You're not going to win that game running around. You are going to have to respect your team will not have the energy level it usually has. You can possession the game into a win, and we did it against Milwaukee. We've played so many games in such a short time that coaches have to be aware there's going to be a fatigue factor. How you manage it and how you rotate your team is certainly dictated by the energy level."
The Nuggets were the only team significantly below their season scoring and shooting averages in the third game, according to research by STATS LLC. Atlanta and Sacramento scored about 10 points more than they average, and Oklahoma City also exceeded its usual offensive performance despite losing backup point guard Eric Maynor to a season-ending injury in the second game.
There are 42 sets of back-to-back-to-backs, and every team has at least one. There were 64 in the 50-game 1999 season that started in February, and there were eight sweeps of all three.
It figures to get harder for teams that face theirs later in the season. But so far 20 percent of the league has done it perfectly, with Minnesota next on the clock when it hosts Chicago on Tuesday.
"I'm glad that it's done," Budinger said. "Like I said, it definitely catches up with you that next day. Back-to-backs are already hard enough. Three in a row, I don't know how many of those you could really last through in the regular season."
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