We're Talking About Practice

By Jon Cooper

The shortened 66-game season has altered the way teams go about their business.

One aspect that has been hit especially hard is the amount of time teams have between games, time normally spent on practice.

With 122 days to squeeze in all 66 games, time not playing or traveling to a game is at a premium. For example, the Hawks haven't had two consecutive days off yet this season and won't for another month, when they get off Feb. 16 and 17. It’s their only two-days-off stretch prior to the All-Star Break.

That means every day without game-related activity has become a precious commodity and must be treated as such.

"We haven't had a lot of time to really have actual practice time, so a day like today, it has to be more mental than actual physical,” said Head Coach Larry Drew following Tuesday's practice session. “We watched film before we came onto the floor, talked about some things, got a few shots up and were done. If it were a normal season this would have been a pretty active and aggressive practice day. It's just adjustments that have to be made."

“I don't consider this practice,” said forward Marvin Williams. “When you get out here and you're running and bumping and grinding, that's practice. So this is like a day off for me. There's no physical contact. We just come out here and shoot for about an hour, and get to go home, that's like a day off for me.”

Drew has not only been forced to limit the amount of physical play he puts his players through on the practice court, he's had to overload the amount of information he puts in.

"I guess you could say we are cramming more because it's been a short period of time," he said. "With a shortened preseason we didn't get a chance to put everything in. We're having to continue to add as we move forward with this early season. So I guess you can say we're cramming things in. The things I put in today would have been in during our training camp. But with the schedule being what it was we had to take a different approach."

Fewer practices haven't really bothered the players.

"I like playing, so I like the games more than practice," said forward Josh Smith, with a laugh. "

"I don't [miss practice] as a player," added Williams. "Practice is something that you have to do, it's necessary at times. Coach [Drew] does a great job of showing us things on film so that when we get out here a lot of that stuff is in context. It's kind of fun to just play games.”

For starters like Smith, who logs 34.7 minutes a game, and Williams, who plays 23.5, these practices can be something of a day-off. For players not logging as many minutes like center Jason Collins (8.5 mpg), the lack of practice time forces them to find ways to keep sharp.

"I'm a player that does what's necessary to put myself in the best shape to help the team," said Collins, who was headed up to the weight room following practice. "A lot of it, for me, is about conditioning and getting my body right and being prepared to go through the grind of this season. This season will definitely test you physically and mentally."

Only 15 games in, it has already become obvious that prioritizing is crucial, especially for coaches.

"With a full training camp, you have a whole month to get a lot of things done," said Assistant Coach Nick Van Exel. "We haven't got half of our sets in that we'd like to get in. You have to be kind of ginger with the players because their bodies are going to go through the ringer. It's important to save these guys and have them ready down the stretch as opposed to early and in the middle of the season."

Van Exel has found that he's had to cut back on some of his work pre-game and off-day work with players and has even had to read players the riot act about doing extra work. Actually all he had to read was the schedule.

"I had to kick Marvin and Jeff [Teague] out of the gym one day because they wanted to come in and get shots," he said. "I explained to them, 'Look, this is our schedule coming up. We're going to have six games in seven nights. What's more important: getting extra shots and burning your legs out or these six games in seven nights?' They understood because they really hadn't looked at it like that.

"I think they understand it a little bit better than they did in December when we started practicing and then early on, like the first few games," he added. "They would come in and really want to get shots. I was explaining to them, it's not going to be that easy. You're going to need these legs. You're going to need them."

Van Exel, who was in his sixth NBA season and first in Denver during the '99 season in which teams played 50 games in 89 days, believes this year is tougher on both coaches and players and that the lack of practice isn't helping.

“I always loved games, honestly, but you need practice, especially from a coach's point of view," he said. "It is [crazier] because it's 16 more games. We only had 50 and the practices are a lot less. It's grueling. I can't imagine how these guys are feeling but I can talk a little bit from experience, so I try to give them a little bit of what I went through."