Before we get to our usual slate of schedule alert games for this month, while looking back at the outcomes from the month prior, let's talk about fatigue. Or more specifically, let's talk about a month in which fatigue was more than just a storyline that flew under the radar.
"I'm tired. I'm tired. I'm so tired right now," New York Knicks superstar Kristaps Porzingis said after a 5-for-13 performance during his team's 121-103 blowout loss to the Washington Wizards on Jan. 3, the second of a back-to-back set. "I have one day now to rest my legs and then get back and play better and have more energy, and also try and bring the team's energy up."
There was the torn Achilles tendon that New Orleans Pelicans star center DeMarcus Cousins suffered Jan. 26 against the Houston Rockets. Writing in Bleacher Report, my former colleague Tom Haberstroh cited research from the Cleveland Clinic and other studies that fatigue or overuse contributes to Achilles tendinitis and ruptures.
Why does that matter? Well, consider that Cousins suffered his injury late in the fourth quarter after having averaged 39.8 minutes in his prior 10 games, including playing four overtimes in nine days and registering a career-high 52 minutes four days prior versus the Chicago Bulls.
That said, the most important fatigue-related story involved not a player but a head coach: the Charlotte Hornets' Steve Clifford.
In late November, Clifford, 56, stepped aside for a medical leave of unspecified length.
Clifford returned in January, 5½ weeks later, and explained why he was sidelined.
"For the most part, the diagnosis was sleep deprivation," Clifford told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. "The headaches and the cause of the headaches were a lack of regular sleep and the stress that goes along with coaching. There were two ways to treat it: stronger medication or stepping away from coaching, stopping the travel, getting regular sleep, diet and exercise."
It's worth checking out the rest of Wojnarowski's article on Clifford, as well as this thoughtful and insightful piece by the Charlotte Observer's excellent beat reporter Rick Bonnell.
Here's a powerful quote from Clifford in Bonnell's piece:
"Most people with headache issues have external issues, like their job. You find out sleep is everything. People say you are what you eat or you've got to drink more water. Those things are important, but not nearly as important as regular sleep."
OK, OK, on we go.
In January, we correctly picked seven of 10 schedule alert games -- and two of those contests in which teams beat schedule alert obstacles came when those teams were facing Clifford's Hornets. However, Clifford wasn't coaching his team at the time; his assistant was. That said, the formula doesn't take into account who is coaching which teams, who's on the court or any factors unrelated to the schedule.
But even with those two hideous Hornets losses, all told we've correctly picked 26 of 32 games this season -- and, again, our 81.3 percent success rate is plenty ahead of where the formula predicted we'd be. (As noted here previously: We applied our schedule alert formula to 10 seasons -- from 2007-08 through 2016-17 -- of games, and the results showed that teams facing schedule alert situations with a MahScore of 8 or higher lose 63 percent of the time.)
A few notables:
The Nuggets have lost all four of their schedule alert games this season; they have two more left, the most of any team.
Four of the six schedule alert games that have been won so far are by the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs and Timberwolves -- currently the four top teams in the Western Conference.
Of the 26 games lost so far, schedule alert teams have lost by an average of 12.9 points.
With all that said, here are February's schedule alert games, and below them are recaps of such games for January:
Feb. 3: Utah at San Antonio | MahScore 8
You don't want to play the Spurs, no matter the circumstances. But you especially do not want to face fatigue-heavy circumstances -- and then play the Spurs. So ... good luck, Jazz. You will be playing your third game in five days and closing out the second of a back-to-back set in this one. After facing the Suns on Feb. 2, you, the Jazz, will head out that night -- losing an hour along the way -- for San Antonio, where you'll face a Spurs squad that has a one-day rest advantage. The Spurs also will be on their 10th day of a 12-day homestand.
Update: Jazz win 120-111
Feb. 3: Golden State at Denver | MahScore 8.5
Yes, yes, on paper, the Warriors should probably win this one, but again, schedule alert doesn't take into account the teams, their records or player availability. It only takes into account the factors related to the schedule, and according to those factors, the Warriors will be fighting fatigue here. It will mark their third game in five days, and the second of a back-to-back set, requiring travel across a time zone. They'll play at Sacramento on Feb. 2 (a nationally televised game, and those always get out late). Then, after that game ends, the Warriors will head out -- losing an hour along the way -- to play a game less than 24 hours later in Denver, which, as we've written here before, is the most feared travel scenario in the league (along with the altitude, the airport is also far from the arena), playing the second of a back-to-back in Denver. The Nuggets will have a one-day rest advantage entering this game.
Update: Warriors lose 108-115
Feb. 9: Portland at Sacramento | MahScore 8.5
This game was originally scheduled to be nationally televised on ESPN, but it's been bumped for Clippers-Pistons (Blake Griffin's first game against his old team).
Given the Trail Blazers' schedule leading up to it ... well, you might turn the channel if things turn ugly. This will mark Portland's fifth game in eight days, with the first three of those games taking place on East Coast time. The Trail Blazers will head home to face Charlotte on Feb. 8, then they'll head out that night for Sacramento to close out the tail end of a back-to-back set and play their third game in five days. To make matters worse for Portland, the Kings will enter this game with a mighty three-day rest advantage -- and the Kings also will be on the 10th day of a 10-day homestand.
Update: Trail Blazers win 118-100
Feb. 9: Charlotte at Utah | MahScore 8
The Hornets are all over the map leading up to this game. Let us explain. First, the Hornets will start in Phoenix on Feb. 4, then will head out that night for Denver to close out a back-to-back the next night. The Hornets then will gain an hour as they head to Portland to face the Trail Blazers on Feb. 8. Then those Hornets will lose an hour as they head out that same night for Utah, where less than 24 hours later they'll face a Jazz team that has a one-day rest advantage.
Update: Hornets lose 94-106
Feb. 10: Denver at Phoenix | MahScore 8
The NBA schedule giveth and taketh away. A week after being granted a schedule advantage against Golden State, the Nuggets will be on the wrong side of the schedule against the Suns. The Nuggets will be in Houston on Feb. 9, then head out that same night -- gaining an hour -- for Phoenix to close out a back-to-back set. And let it be said -- heading from Houston to Phoenix overnight is no easy flight. As the crow flies, that route is more than 1,000 miles. Oh, and the Suns will hold a two-day rest advantage coming into this one.
Update: Nuggets win 123-113
Feb. 13: San Antonio at Denver | MahScore 8
Hey! It's Denver. Again! And just three days after getting hammered by the schedule, they'll catch a break -- sort of. First, the Spurs will be playing their third game in four days and the fourth of a six-game trip that starts in Phoenix, heads to Golden State and then to Utah, where they'll play the Jazz on Feb. 12 before heading out that same night for Denver -- which, again, is the worst place in the league to finish out a back-to-back set. The Nuggets will enter this game with a two-day rest advantage.
Update: Spurs lose 109-117
Feb. 14: Atlanta at Detroit | MahScore 9
So ... this will not be a lovely way for the Hawks to spend Valentine's Day. This will mark their fifth game in seven days, their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set -- one that requires travel across a time zone. In other words, all the ingredients are there for this game to go down as one of our nine red-alert games of the season. The Hawks will play in Milwaukee on Feb. 13, then head out that night -- losing an hour in the process -- for Detroit to close out a back-to-back set and play the Pistons less than 24 hours after facing the Bucks. (Weirdly, these teams will meet on Feb. 11, then three days later, in what will mark the third game in four days for both teams. The difference on the rematch? The Hawks are on the second of a back-to-back set, while the Pistons will hold a one-day rest advantage.)
Update: Hawks lose 98-104
Feb. 28: Charlotte at Boston | MahScore 8
The second schedule-alert game of the month for Charlotte ... sheesh. But such is the schedule. This will mark the Hornets' fifth game in seven days, their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set, with the tail end requiring travel, which is never fun. On Feb. 27, the Hornets will host the Bulls, then they'll head out that same night for Boston. The next night, the Hornets will face a tough Celtics squad that will hold a one-day rest advantage entering this game.
Feb. 28: Milwaukee at Detroit | MahScore 8
The Bucks are young and spry, but they're not impervious to fatigue, as evidenced by their schedule alert loss earlier this season to the Hornets. This game will mark the Bucks' fourth in six days, their third in four days and the second of a back-to-back set, which also requires travel across a time zone. Ouch. They'll host the Wizards on Feb. 27 in a nationally televised game -- in other words, a game that will end later than usual -- and then head out that same night for Detroit (losing an hour along the way) to play a Pistons team less than 24 hours later. The Pistons, meanwhile, will enter this game with a one-day rest advantage.
January's schedule alert recap
Trail Blazers lose to the Cavaliers, 127-110, in Cleveland on Jan. 2
History will remember this evening largely as Isaiah Thomas' first game played in seven months, as the Cleveland guard returned to action, making his Cavaliers debut and scoring 17 points in 19 minutes. But as spirited as his performance was, the Trail Blazers still held a three-point lead at halftime. However, all of a sudden, those same Trail Blazers were outscored 74-54 in the second half, including by a whopping 36-23 in the fourth quarter.
What happened? Well, it probably didn't help that Portland was closing out a back-to-back set, having played an overtime game in Chicago on New Year's Day, then flying out that same night -- losing an hour in the process -- for Cleveland, where the Cavaliers entered this contest with a two-day rest advantage. It also marked the third game in four days for the Trail Blazers, with all of them coming on the road. So if it looked like the Trail Blazers just ran out of gas in the second half, well, that's a fairly safe assumption -- and a frequent occurrence in these sorts of games.
Or as Portland star Damian Lillard said, according to the Trail Blazers' official team site, "We moved the ball really well; I thought we competed hard, we played smart. But when you get tired and the game gets down the stretch, you've got to be able to sustain that, and I thought they did a better job of it than us."
Indeed, the Trail Blazers shot just 8-of-21 from the field in the fourth quarter, a frame in which the Cavaliers used a timely 19-3 run to turn a close game into a blowout.
Suns lose to the Nuggets, 134-111, in Denver on Jan. 3
A moment of silence for the Suns, please. OK, now let's see how they came to this place. First, they faced red-alert obstacles, as this bloodbath marked their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set that required travel to Denver (that is, losing an hour heading east -- not fun) after hosting the Hawks the night before. (As noted in our preview, the most-feared travel scenario in the NBA is one that requires travel on a back-to-back to the Mile High City.)
And to make matters worse for the Suns, they were facing a Nuggets squad that had a ridiculous three-day rest advantage. Three. Whole. Days.
But then ... something else happened, which somehow made matters even worse for Phoenix.
After playing the Hawks, the Suns headed to Sky Harbor International Airport to depart for Denver -- but mechanical issues on the plane forced them to leave the airport and head back home at 2 a.m. It wasn't until noon the next day that they were able to leave for Denver, and they didn't arrive until about five hours before tipoff.
Even with that aggravating snafu, the Suns still jumped out to a 67-61 halftime lead, which, all things considered, is mighty admirable. But as is often the case in these sorts of games, fatigue started to set in during the second half -- and then things got ugly. In fact, the Suns were outscored 73-44 in the second half, thus the blowout score you see above.
Their dead legs really started to show in the third quarter, when the Suns missed 14 of their first 15 shots and finished the quarter 5-of-28 from the floor. As noted by The Arizona Republic, Devin Booker and TJ Warren looked especially worn, combining to shoot 9-of-29 from the field -- with Warren missing three straight shots at the rim on one possession.
"We wrote on the [grease] board, 'No excuse, only opportunities,'" Suns guard Isaiah Canaan said, according to the Republic. "That was our motto going into the game. But obviously, it was a tough travel day."
Nuggets lose to the Kings, 106-98, in Sacramento on Jan. 6
Being really, really tired can lead to really, really bad decision-making, and on the court, that can translate to the equivalent of "drunken basketball," as Dr. Charles Czeisler, the director of sleep medicine at Brigham Health and Harvard Medical School, once told ESPN.
And if you were watching this game, you might have thought the Nuggets were off, especially as they committed a season-high 26 turnovers and missed four key free throws down the stretch.
"I passed the ball to [Nikola Jokic] when he wasn't even looking," Denver guard Jamal Murray said, according to the Denver Post. "I put that on myself. I've got to be able to get guys to the right spot and make sure we're executing properly, especially on the road."
Kings coach Mike Malone also was tagged with a technical for arguing with the officials, perhaps the result of his mood being impacted by fatigue. (A reality, as Czeisler and other sleep doctors will tell you.)
But one might have expected that coming in, as the Nuggets were playing the second of a back-to-back set and their third game in four days.
After facing the Jazz in Salt Lake City the night before, the Nuggets headed out that same night for Sacramento -- gaining an hour -- to face a Kings squad that entered this game with a three-day rest advantage and was on their 11th day of a 13-game homestand.
The Kings scored a whopping 40 points off those Nuggets turnovers -- and still won even though they were without leading scorer Zach Randolph (oral surgery), George Hill (personal reasons) and Frank Mason III (heel contusion).
"If we use [fatigue] as an excuse, it's gonna be a long season," Malone said, according to the Denver Post. "It was just poor decisions, and we just never got control of it. It started in the first quarter and went all the way through the very last play ..."
The Bulls lose to the Pacers, 125-86, in Indianapolis on Jan. 6
Schedule losses still count.
So begins the game story from the Chicago Tribune's veteran Bulls beat reporter K.C. Johnson after this utter bloodbath.
This game no doubt registered as a schedule loss, and then some, triggering the third-highest MahScore of our season (and a red alert), such were the Bulls' many fatigue-related obstacles. It marked their eighth game in 12 days, their fifth game in seven days, their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set, with both of those games coming on the road.
And after facing the Mavericks in Dallas the night before, the Bulls headed out that same night for Indianapolis -- losing an hour along the way -- and, according to Johnson, didn't arrive at their Indianapolis hotel until 3 a.m. local time.
In other words, the Bulls were walking into a buzz saw -- and it didn't help that they were facing a Pacers squad that entered this game with a two-day rest advantage.
Sure enough, the Bulls were bludgeoned, trailing by as much as 41 points.
(We could include a bunch of other statistics here to drive home how ugly this one was, but you get the picture.)
Bulls center Robin Lopez was asked if he believes in schedule losses.
"Not in interviews," he joked, according to Johnson.
But Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic didn't hold back, offering some of the strongest comments to date regarding rest and the league's new schedule format for the 2017-18 slate, which includes, among other things, fewer back-to-back sets.
"I know we were talking about we were going to start earlier this season, have less back-to-backs," Mirotic said, according to Johnson. "But I feel like so far the schedule is even worse than last year, to be honest. It's not an excuse. But it's true that it's been hard, a lot of back-to-backs and long weeks."
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, speaking of the schedule, offered this: "You can't use that as an excuse. Every team goes through this. It was a tough game from a schedule standpoint with them being off and us getting in late. But you still have to bring the effort."
Easier said than done.
Mavericks beat the Hornets, 115-111, in Charlotte on Jan. 10
Man, you really, really have to hand it to the Mavericks for notching the schedule alert upset of the season. They faced the most severe MahScore of 2017-18, because they were playing their fifth game in eight days, their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set that required late-night travel across a time zone. The night before, they beat the Magic in Dallas. Then the Mavs headed out that night for Charlotte -- losing an hour along the way -- and arrived at about 3 a.m. local time, according to the Charlotte Observer, to face a Hornets squad that, by some quirk in the ever-quirky schedule, had been off for four days. Yes, four days.
Not only that, but in the four schedule alert games in January prior to this one, the four teams who had a schedule advantage had won by an average of 21.7 points per game.
Not surprisingly, the Hornets opened the game on a 9-0 run. It might have seemed downhill from there, but the Mavericks fought back with an 11-2 run of their own, then outscored the Hornets 39-24 in the second quarter to take a decisive lead. The Hornets fought back late, behind 41 points from Kemba Walker. But Charlotte big man Dwight Howard -- who scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds -- shot just 5-of-18 from the foul line, which really cost his team down the stretch. (Overall, the Hornets shot just 15-of-30 from the free throw line, while the Mavericks drained 22-of-28.)
All in all, it was a crushing loss for the Hornets, but give the Mavericks -- led by Rick Carlisle, one of the best coaches in the game -- a ton of credit.
Nuggets lose to the Spurs, 112-80, in San Antonio on Jan. 13
Some simple addition, perhaps.
First, it's your fifth game in eight days, your third game in four days and you're on the second of a back-to-back set -- having played the night prior before hopping on a flight and heading east across a time zone, thus losing an hour in the process.
Now take all that and add in the element that the opponent you'll be facing is the Spurs, who will enter this game with a one-day rest advantage.
What's that add up to?
Well, for the Nuggets, it meant their worst loss of the season and their second-worst scoring total this season, and they shot a season-low 34.9 percent from the floor, to boot. They also gave up 112 points after holding the Grizzlies to just 78 the night before.
The Spurs opened the game shooting 6-for-7 from 3-point range and finished 14-of-27 from beyond the arc.
Warriors beat the Raptors, 127-125, in Toronto on Jan. 13
Well, this one was interesting. The Warriors built up a 27-point halftime lead after scoring 81 points in the first two quarters -- their highest-scoring first half of the season and most since March 11, 2016 (81 against Portland).
So it seemed that the Warriors weren't feeling the effects of their travel-heavy schedule leading up to this affair -- that is, being on their fifth game in eight days, their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set.
But then ... things got interesting. Toronto started chipping away, charging back, whittling the Warriors' lead down, until it was a one-basket game late in the fourth quarter. And in those final minutes, Stephen Curry, a 90 percent career free throw shooter, missed a pair of attempts from the charity stripe with the Warriors leading by one in the final minute. (Mind you, entering this game, Curry had been 17-of-17 over the previous five seasons in the final minute of a one-point game, best in the NBA.) Disconcerting, no?
And then you remember, the Warriors had hosted the Clippers in Oakland on Jan. 10, then flew to Milwaukee -- losing two hours in the process -- to face the Bucks on Jan. 12. Then, after that game, the Warriors flew to Toronto, losing another hour in the process and arriving at about 3 a.m. local time, according to a team official, to face a Raptors team that entered this game with a one-day rest advantage.
As such, all the ingredients were there for a historic second-half collapse -- nearly the biggest since the Lakers came back from 28 points to beat the Mavericks in December 2002. How historic would such a collapse have been, you ask? Entering this game, teams were 988-8 when leading by 25 points at halftime in the shot clock era (since 1954-55).
But the Warriors are the Warriors. They survived.
Heat beat the Hornets, 106-105, in Charlotte on Jan. 20
This was not a good month for the Hornets, who lost two games when their opponents faced some hefty schedule alert challenges coming in. But all credit to their foes for overcoming fatigue and finding a way to win. That said, for the Hornets, this one will sting.
First, let's backtrack. This marked Miami's fifth game in seven days, their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set, with travel involved, no less. It also was their fourth straight road game for the Heat. So after playing Milwaukee on Jan. 17, the Heat traveled to Brooklyn -- losing an hour in the process -- to face the Nets on Jan. 19. And after facing those Nets, the Heat headed out that same night to Charlotte to duel the Hornets less than 24 hours later. Meanwhile, the Hornets entered this game with a two-day rest advantage and were on the fifth day of an 11-day homestand.
So it's no surprise that the Hornets built a double-digit lead after outscoring the Heat 35-17 in the third quarter. After all, most teams in fatigue-related situations tend to wilt in the second half -- no doubt when their legs start to feel heavy. But late in the fourth quarter, the Heat charged back, closing the game on a 15-4 run and miraculously overcoming a five-point deficit in the final 34 seconds to steal the win.
Hornets coach Steve Clifford railed against his team afterward, saying, "Just total lack of concentration, intensity, technique and understanding who the hell you're playing against. It's terrible. Terrible."
Nuggets lose to the Spurs, 106-104, in San Antonio on Jan. 30
Some respectable applause for the Nuggets is in order right from the get-go. This marked the second time in January that they faced schedule alert obstacles in San Antonio, which, yes, is weird, but such is the NBA schedule from time to time. For the Nuggets, this marked their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set. They lost a one-point heartbreaker to the Celtics on Jan. 29, then headed out that same night -- losing an hour in the process -- for San Antonio, where the Spurs held a one-day rest advantage and were on their sixth day of a 13-day homestand.
The Nuggets could've given in, but they most certainly did not, instead playing the Spurs almost bucket for bucket in a back-and-forth affair that included 18 lead changes and neither team holding a double-digit lead. But the Spurs are the Spurs, and even without an injured Kawhi Leonard they matched a season high with 33 assists, shot 50 percent from the field and held on despite the Nuggets almost rallying from a five-point deficit in the final minute. The Spurs improved to an NBA-best 21-4 at home.
"That young team has come leaps and bounds," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said afterward. "Mike [Malone, the Nuggets head coach] does a great job with them. So, it's a good win for us."
Timberwolves lose to the Raptors, 109-104, in Toronto on Jan. 30
This was a real kick-in-the-teeth way to close out the month for a team that played more January games than any other NBA squad.
The Timberwolves logged 17 games in January, with nary more than a day off in between any of them, and their final game of the month came with a heap of trouble.
First, the contest closed out a five-games-in-seven-days stretch, their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back stretch. The Timberwolves played in Atlanta on Jan. 29, then headed out that same night for Toronto -- a not-so-short trip that, well, is about 734.5 miles as the crow flies. The Raptors entered this one with a one-day rest advantage and were on their sixth day of a seven-game homestand.
But the Timberwolves started off strong, ultimately leading by 13 by the second quarter ... and then they blew that lead in the second half, which is when many teams in schedule alert situations tend to wither a bit, largely thanks to fatigue.
The Timberwolves ultimately shot just 15-of-24 from the charity stripe.
"We've been a great free throw shooting team all year," Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said, according to the Star-Tribune. "You're going to have some nights like that."