Kevin Durant is embracing his role as a high-caliber defender while leading the Warriors on the offensive end with Steph Curry out.
After a midnight flight across a time zone, the Jazz blew their biggest lead of the season. Following wacky plane trouble, the Bulls were blown out. The Magic faced travel issues thanks to inclement weather, then ate a loss hours later.
And one head coach had the audacity to utter the following after a loss, “It’s a little perplexing why we haven’t been more energetic on back-to-backs.”
Yeah, right …
These were just some details from the nine teams who faced schedule alert scenarios in December — and eight of those teams lost, by the way. The only winner? The San Antonio Spurs, of course. But those savvy Spurs, ever mindful of fatigue and the pitfalls of the NBA schedule, barely won, as you’ll see below.
For now, December’s results mean that we have correctly predicted 19 of 22 games this season in which one team faced a distinct competitive advantage because of the schedule.
Again, our 86.4 percent success rate to this point is far and away better than where the data predicted we would be at this point in the season.
(As a refresher, before the 2017-18 season, we applied our schedule alert formula to 10 seasons — from 2007-08 through 2016-17 — and the results showed that teams facing schedule alert situations with a MahScore of 8 or higher lose 63 percent of the time.)
That said, here are January’s schedule alert games (apologies in advance to the Denver Nuggets), and below them are recaps of such games for December. January’s slate includes zero national television games, and the most severe schedule disadvantage of the season.
Jan. 2: Portland at Cleveland | MahScore: 8.5
So, this isn’t an ideal way to close out a back-to-back set and a three-games-in-four-days trip. Portland faces the Hawks in Atlanta on a Saturday, then cross a time zone to play the Bulls in Chicago on Monday. Then, after facing those Bulls, the Blazers will head out that night — and lose an hour in the process — for Cleveland, where they’ll face the Cavaliers less than 24 hours later. The Cavaliers will enter this game with a two-day rest advantage.
Jan. 3: Phoenix at Denver | MahScore: 9
This game registers as a red alert for the Suns, who will face plenty of not-very-fun obstacles here. First, this marks their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set. And, even worse, it’s the second of a back-to-back set that requires travel to elevation-drunk Denver, which veteran coaches will tell you is the most brutal schedule/fatigue scenario in the NBA. So after hosting the Hawks on Jan. 2, the Suns will leave Phoenix that same night and head for Denver and get in late, such is the distance from Denver International Airport and the city’s downtown. Oh, and the Nuggets will enter this game with an absurd three-day rest advantage. Three days!
Jan. 6: Denver at Sacramento | MahScore: 8.5
One of these teams will be playing the second of a back-to-back set and their third game in four days … and one of these teams will enter this game with a three-day rest advantage. Yeah, that doesn’t exactly sound like a fair fight. The Nuggets will dance with the Jazz in Utah on Jan. 5, then head out that same night for Sacramento — gaining an hour in the process — to play the Kings, who will be on the 11th day of a 13-day homestand. Good luck, Nuggets.
Jan. 6: Chicago at Indiana | MahScore: 9.5
Red. Alert. This game actually triggered our third-highest MahScore of the NBA calendar, which tells you how steep the fatigue mountain is that the Bulls will have to climb. First, this will mark their fifth game in seven days. It will mark their third game in four days. And it will mark the second of a back-to-back set, with both of those games coming on the road. (Plus they’ll be crossing a time zone: not good!) So after facing the Mavericks in Dallas on Jan. 5, the Bulls will head out that same night for Indianapolis — and lose an hour in the process — to face the Pacers less than 24 hours later. And it’s not as if the Pacers need much of an edge here, but they’ll enter this game with a two-day rest advantage.
Jan. 10: Dallas at Charlotte | MahScore of 10
Sound the alarms from the mountain tops! This game has the most severe MahScore of 2017-18, folks. So feel free to send thoughts and prayers to the Mavericks in advance, because they’re going to need help. It’s tough enough that the Mavericks will be playing their third game in four days (and their fifth game in eight days). It’s tough enough that this will be the second of a home-road back-to-back set. But then consider the travel. The Mavericks will face the Magic at home on Jan. 9, then head out that night for Charlotte — a trek that will cost them an hour and that will span, oh, more than 900 miles as the crow flies. And somehow, someway, the Hornets will enter this game with a four-day rest advantage. You read that right: four days. Thoughts and prayers, Dallas. Thoughts and prayers.
Jan. 13: Denver at San Antonio | MahScore of 8
Facing the Spurs is tough enough, no matter the circumstances. Now imagine that it’s your third game in four days, and your fifth game in eight days. Imagine that it’s the second of a back-to-back set, and that after hosting the Grizzlies, you’ll fly East from Denver for San Antonio — losing an hour in the process — to face the Spurs less than 24 hours later. Now imagine that the Spurs will enter this game with a one-day rest advantage. Imagine all that, and it’s not hard to understand why the Nuggets might well be barbecued in this matchup.
Jan. 13: Golden State at Toronto | MahScore of 8
Even the mighty Warriors aren’t impervious to fatigue, especially considering the circumstances they face in this brouhaha. It’ll mark their third game in four days, their fifth game in eight days, and the second of a back-to-back set. And let’s not forget the travel involved. First, they’ll host the Clippers in Oakland on Jan. 10, then they’ll fly to Milwaukee — losing two hours in the process — to face the Bucks on Jan. 12. Then, after facing those swarthy Bucks, the Warriors will head out that same night for Toronto — losing another hour in the process … and probably more time as they pass through customs, so who knows exactly when their heads will hit the pillow at their downtown Toronto hotel? All we know is, it’ll be late. Very late. And then they’ll have to face the Raptors less than 24 hours later — a Raptors squad, mind you, that will enter this game with a one-day rest advantage and will be on a five-day homestand.
Jan. 20: Miami at Charlotte | MahScore of 8.5
Pardon the pun (or not), but this winter game ought to chill the Heat and then some. The schedule commands this be Miami’s fifth game in seven days (vs. the Bucks, at the Bulls, at the Bucks, then at Brooklyn, before heading to Charlotte), their third game in four days, and the second of a back-to-back set with travel involved, no less. The schedule also commands that this will be the fourth straight road game for the Heat. They’ll play in Milwaukee on Jan. 17, then head to Brooklyn — losing an hour in the process — to face the Nets on Jan. 19. And after facing those Nets, the Heat will head out that same night for Charlotte to duel the Hornets less than 24 hours later. Meanwhile, the Hornets will enter this game with a two-day rest advantage and will be on the fifth day of an 11-day homestand.
Jan. 30: Denver at San Antonio | MahScore of 8
“What?” you ask, head cocked askew. “How in the wide, wide world of sports could the Nuggets have two schedule alert games in San Antonio in the same month, much less the same season?” Such is the NBA schedule, dear reader. The Nuggets will be playing their third game in four days and their second of a back-to-back set, with, of course, travel involved. First, the Nuggets will host the Mavericks on Jan. 27, then the Celtics on Jan 29. And after facing those Celtics, the Nuggets will head out that same night — losing an hour in the process — for San Antonio, where they’ll face the Spurs less than 24 hours later. The Spurs, meanwhile, will enter this affair with a one-day rest advantage. They will also be on the sixth day of a 13-day homestand.
Jan. 30: Minnesota at Toronto | MahScore of 8
The Timberwolves will fly a league-high 55,289 miles this season, and a not-insignificant chunk of that will come during a five-games-in-seven-days stretch that will be capped off with this game. First, on Jan. 24, the Timberwolves will play the Trail Blazers in Portland, then head to Oakland to face the Golden State Warriors the very next night before returning home. Then, after hosting the Nets on Jan. 27, the Timberwolves will then head to Atlanta to face the Hawks on Jan. 29. And after that game against the Hawks, the Timberwolves will head out that same night for Toronto — getting to their hotel at who-knows-when thanks to customs — and face the Raptors, which, let it be said, will also be Minnesota’s third game in four days. You think you’re dizzy reading all that and trying to keep up with the Timberwolves’ travels? Now just imagine how they’ll feel. Oh, and the Raptors will enter this one with a one-day rest advantage, though it’s doubtful that they’ll need it to notch a win. The Raptors will also be on the sixth day of a seven-game homestand.
December’s schedule alert games
Grizzlies lose to the Cavaliers in Cleveland, 116-111, on Dec. 2
Credit the still-gritty Grizzlies for fighting hard when they’re down 19 in the second half on the second night of a back-to-back set, playing their third game in four days. After facing the Spurs in Memphis on Friday, the Grizzlies headed out that same night — losing an hour in the process — for Cleveland. The Cavaliers, who had a one-day rest advantage, were trailing early after the Grizzlies scored a first-quarter season high of 32 points. And the Cavaliers saw their big second-half lead erased when the Grizzlies tied the score at 109 in the final minutes, but then some guy named LeBron James took over, handing the Grizzlies their 11th straight loss.
Suns lose to the Raptors in Toronto, 126-113, on Dec. 5
How’s this for a brutal stretch? The Suns were tasked with heading north of the border to cap off an 11-day, season-long six-game trip, the second of a back-to-back set after playing in Philadelphia the night before, and their third game in four days. After beating the 76ers in Philadelphia on Monday, the Suns headed out that same night and didn’t arrive at their downtown Toronto hotel until 1 a.m. local time, according to the Arizona Republic. Meanwhile, the Raptors entered the game with a massive three-day rest advantage. As expected, the Suns were down big early, trailing by 13 in the first quarter and by 19 entering the fourth. Suns star Devin Booker, who scored a season-high 46 points in the win at Philadelphia, missed his first seven shots against the Raptors, finishing 4 of 15 from the field. More important, Booker, in his 78th minute of floor time over a 26-hour period, had to be carried off the court after suffering a noncontact groin injury late in the fourth quarter.
It marked the third time since Nov. 10 that the Suns have played a three-games-in-four-days stretch.
“We haven’t handled it well up to this point,” coach Jay Triano said, according to the Republic. “It’s a big test for us, getting in late, them having rest, us having three games in four nights. How are you going to respond? How are you going to get out there physically and mentally and fight through it?”
Jazz lose to the Thunder in Oklahoma City, 100-94, on Dec. 5
The Jazz were hot — white hot. They had won six straight, with rookie Donovan Mitchell dominating like an All-Star. But then, after hosting the Wizards in Salt Lake City, the Jazz headed out that same night for Oklahoma City — losing an hour in the process — to face a squad with a one-day rest advantage and that was in the midst of a five-game homestand. And though the Jazz built a 17-point lead by the third quarter, they ultimately wilted in the fourth, in which they were outscored 32-14. It proved to be the largest blown lead of the season for the Jazz.
“I thought our guys ran out of steam a bit, just emotionally,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. “We’ve got to be able to play through that.”
Magic lose to the Hawks in Atlanta, 117-110, on Dec. 9
Hawks forward Ersan Ilyasova had some kind of night, scoring 26 points while making all nine of his field goals. So what was behind his flawless offensive output? Perhaps he had some magic feeling entering the evening? “Not really,” Ilyasova said postgame. “It was one of those nights, I guess. Obviously, everybody came out with a lot of energy. You have to give them credit; the Magic obviously [had] a back-to-back.” Ah, energy. The Hawks entered this game with a two-day rest advantage, and the Magic were on the tail end of a back-to-back set, playing their third game in four days and their fifth game in seven days. To further complicate matters for the Magic — they didn’t arrive in Atlanta until the day of the game because of inclement weather, according to the team’s website. (Normally, if a team needs to travel for the second half of a back-to-back set, it’ll immediately fly after the first game of that set.) Also, the Magic were without their two leading scorers — Aaron Gordon (concussion) and Evan Fournier (sprained ankle) — but they still made it interesting, no doubt, with forward Nikola Vucevic notching his first career triple-double (31 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).
Spurs beat the Suns in Phoenix, 104-101, on Dec. 9
If anyone in the NBA knows how to carefully navigate a schedule-alert situation, it’s the Spurs. Which is why in this outing, which for San Antonio marked the end of a back-to-back set, their third game in four days and their fifth game in seven days, the following Spurs either didn’t play or didn’t even make the trip to Phoenix: Kawhi Leonard, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Kyle Anderson and Danny Green. But that some of those guys were home resting isn’t surprising after the Spurs won a nail-biter on national television over the Celtics the night prior, before flying to Phoenix. Even without several of their bold-faced names, the Spurs’ skeleton crew built a 19-point lead against the ever-dimming Suns, who were without star Devin Booker and entered the game with a one-day rest advantage … but somehow, the Suns came roaring back, taking their first lead of the game with 1:19 left. Still, the Spurs survived when guard Bryn Forbes hit a winning 3-pointer with 21.9 seconds left.
“It was our fifth game in seven nights, on the road, had a back-to-back to end it all,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said postgame. “I thought we were pretty tired, but I thought they hung in as well as they could.”
Hawks lose to the Grizzlies in Memphis, 96-94, on Dec. 15
The Eastern Conference-worst Hawks were closing out a five-games-in-seven-days stretch — and the tail end of a back-to-back set … and their third game in four days … so this wasn’t an easy task, even if they were up against a likewise lowly Grizzlies. After hosting the Pistons, the Hawks headed out that same night for Bluff City to face a Memphis squad that had have a one-day rest advantage. Still, the Hawks built a seven-point halftime lead … only to see it dwindle down the stretch, with Memphis’ Tyreke Evans hitting a go-head layup with 1:03 left in the fourth quarter.
Bulls lose to the Cavaliers in Cleveland, 115-112, on Dec. 21
We’ll leave it to Bulls.com reporter Sam Smith to explain an oddity surrounding this game. “It was an NBA milestone of sorts as the regular team plane was replaced by one much smaller, NBA players, it was believed, for the first time in more than two decades traveling in what approximated coach class,” Smith reported. “And then with the plane too small for the stairs in Cleveland, so the players after almost an hour wait on the plane had to exit climbing down a makeshift luggage conveyor braced up against the plane. This was a case of the baggage waiting for the passengers. It didn’t seem an ideal harbinger.”
Indeed, that travel calamity seemed as if it would foreshadow doom, but the Bulls, who entered this game riding a seven-game winning streak, hung tough, despite the fatigue they carried. What fatigue? Well, against the Cavaliers, the Bulls were closing out a three-games-in-four-days stretch. And after hosting the Magic on the 20th, the Bulls headed out that night for Cleveland — losing an hour in the process — to face LeBron James’ crew, which held a one-day rest advantage. As for the game itself, James, as you might have guessed, closed it out, finishing with 34 points, and Kevin Love pitched in with 27.
“We battled them, stood toe to toe with them and gave us a chance to win,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “[Our] effort was tremendous coming on a back-to-back, sitting on a plane for 40 minutes when we got in with no stairs.”
Celtics lose to the Knicks in New york, 102-93, on Dec. 21
Kristaps Porzingis was mighty limited, thanks to a banged-up knee, but the Celtics were mighty gassed, thanks to the NBA schedule. Boston was closing out a five-games-in-seven days stretch, their third game in four days and playing the second of a back-to-back set after hosting the Heat a day earlier. The Knicks, meanwhile, had a two-day rest advantage and jumped out to a 14-point lead in the first quarter.
Though Porzingis finished with only one point on 0-of-11 shooting from the field after missing two games because of a sore left knee, the Knicks were carried by an unsuspected hero: Michael Beasley. Yes, you read that right. Beasley came off the bench and finished with a season-high 32 points.
Nets lose to the Pelicans in New Orleans, 128-113, on Dec. 27
Their second of a back-to-back set after playing in San Antonio the night before, their third game of a five-game trip, their fifth game in eight days … these were all stiff obstacles that the Nets were facing entering this soiree. But even more grueling was the fact that the Pelicans entered the game with a whopping three-day rest advantage.
As you might expect, the Nets came out s … l … o … w …, trailing by 16 in the first quarter, 23 in the second and by as much as 33 in the third. “It starts with the starting five,” said Nets guard Allen Crabbe, according to the New York Post. “Our energy wasn’t what it needed to be to start the game.” Added Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, “We’ve got to look at that first group and why we’re [flat]. We have to look at it,” Atkinson said. “I can’t give you an answer right now.”
And while the Nets looked flat, Pelicans point guard Rajon Rondo ran circles around them, dishing out a franchise-record 25 assists, becoming the first player to hit that total since Jason Kidd in 1996. The Nets fell to 1-6 on the tail end of back-to-backs. “It’s a little perplexing why we haven’t been more energetic on back-to-backs,” Atkinson said, according to Newsday.
Is it really that perplexing, though?
Nuggets lose to the Timberwolves in Minneapolis, 128-125, on Dec. 27
Entering this game, the Nuggets had held their previous three foes to below 86 points, their longest such streak since 2012. But then this game was different. The Nuggets had hosted the Jazz on Dec. 26, then headed out that same night for Minneapolis — losing an hour in the process — to play their third road game in six days. And so the Nuggets’ improved defense faltered, as they fell into a 19-point hole in the first half. But Denver rallied, with a key second-half run to force overtime. And that’s where Jimmy Butler took over, scoring 12 of his his team’s 14 points in the extra session to ice the Timberwolves’ win. Butler finished with 39, all told.
“Down 19 points, second half, second night of a back-to-back, we could’ve very easily have folded and just rolled over,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the game. “I loved the fact that our guys never did that. We competed.”