One of the unpleasantries of playing in the NBA is the dreaded back-to-back. You play in one city on a given night, hop a flight to another city, get to bed in the wee hours of the morning and play another game a short time later.
"But everyone goes through it," Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Everyone is going to play a stretch where you have maybe four games in six days or five in seven. So how do you deal with it?"
For the Wolves, the answer is not that well, especially when it comes to playing the second of back-to-back games on the road.
The Wolves' record at home (22-6) is striking compared to their road record (12-16), and their offbeat performance in road games played on the second of consecutive nights is a main contributor to that.
The Wolves are 4-6 in the second game played on consecutive days — but they are 3-0 when that game is played at home and a woeful 1-6 when it is on the road.
A day off on the road, like the one the Wolves had Thursday in Chicago before facing the Bulls on Friday, makes a huge difference in how the Wolves play. They are 8-7 when they have one day off leading into a road game, 3-2 on two days of rest. That's not great, but at least it's not dreadful.
"[That day off] helps tremendously, not only just physically but mentally," veteran guard Jamal Crawford said. "When you're out there, you have to be as locked in as possible. You're playing against the best players in the world and you have to be locked in every single second because that possession can mean something in the game."
When they are the visitor on the tail end of a back-to-back, the Wolves aren't as locked in defensively. They allow an average of 110.57 points in those games, with a defensive rating of 113.5 — that means when adjusted for pace of play, the Wolves are allowing 113.5 points per 100 possessions (the length of an average game). By comparison, their defensive rating for the season is 107.9.
Their offense also suffers, with their offensive rating in those games at 106.2, compared to 111.1 overall.
Give the Wolves a day off before they play on the road and their defensive rating improves to 107.8 and their offensive rating to 110.1.
"You get in such the grind, it's almost like you're running in mud at some points," Crawford said. "Even a day or two, you feel recharged and ready to get back out there."
Karl-Anthony Towns said the day off also allows the Wolves to better prepare for their next opponent.
"Your legs are a little fresher and you have a chance to go over the schemes and see what you did wrong and try to fix them," the All-Star center said. "In football, you play Sunday and have until next Sunday to prepare for that opponent. It's a very strategic game.
"For us, we have to work on the fly. We have to fix it on the fly. There's not much practice time obviously when you're on the road. It's a lot different when you have a back to back than when you have a day off between."
The Wolves could be in the lead for the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference if they played better in road games to end back-to-backs, or at least played at a level with their counterparts. San Antonio is 3-4 in those games and Oklahoma City is 3-3. Again, not great, but a few games better than the Wolves, and that can mean the difference between a No. 3 or No. 5 seed at the end of the season. As it stands, the Wolves were the No. 4 seed, 1½ games back of the Spurs.
But while he said the lack of preparation time can be a hindrance, Towns said there was no excuse for the Wolves playing as poorly as they do in road games without rest.
"We're professional athletes. This is what we ask to be," Towns said. "This is our job. We can't complain about the circumstances. We have to go out there with the cards we have in our hand and deal them to the best of our ability. It doesn't matter what the circumstances are."
But when it comes to their performance, it seems the circumstances do matter.
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