Such is the frenzied cycle of youth tournaments and AAU showcases, but as the best players progress to college and the NBA, the games grow longer and the shot clocks shorter, opponents stronger and defenses rougher, flights more frequent and bodies more brittle. Ironmen who used to sail through quadrupleheaders dread basic back-to-backs. "Parts of you swell on the plane," Dallas forward Lamar Odom said. But this season's abbreviated schedule has introduced an even stiffer test for all those swollen parts: the back-to-back-to-back, three games in three leg-sapping nights, a form of punishment even if it brings back some fond memories. "Hey, no practice," Mavs shooting guard Jason Terry said. "It's like we're kids again. We just play."
The first time Casey Smith scanned an advanced copy of the Mavericks' schedule, his eyes stopped at the second week in March. Five games in six nights, spread across five cities and three time zones, culminating in the club's only back-to-back-to-back: at Phoenix on Thursday, at Sacramento on Friday, at Golden State on Saturday. Smith is the Mavericks' head athletic trainer, and as such he's the caretaker of the oldest team in the NBA, whose five biggest contributors are 33 and over. They outlasted everybody a season ago, but their championship hangover was predictably harsh, and when they showed up to training camp, forward Dirk Nowitzki was already nursing a bum knee, Kidd a sore hip and Odom a bruised psyche after being traded from the Lakers to Dallas. Smith and coach Rick Carlisle pored over the breakneck schedule and devised a plan to try to preserve the Mavs for March and beyond.
Kidd, 38, has logged the fewest minutes per game of his career, and Nowitzki, 33, the fewest since he was a rookie. Carlisle yanked Kidd before a second overtime against Portland last month because he exceeded the 30-minute threshold and sat Nowitzki for a week in January to rehab his troublesome left knee. Smith met with two of the youngest Mavericks, shooting guard Rodrigue Beaubois and center Ian Mahinmi, and encouraged them to increase their cardio work so they could relieve older teammates. Smith was gearing up for the gauntlet. "We had to be prepared for this," Mahinmi said.
After Dallas beat the Knicks on March 6, the Tuesday before the trip, Kidd spotted Smith in the locker room and yelled: "Three in a row! I'm ready!" Never mind that starting center Brendan Haywood was out because of a sprained left ankle and his backup, Brandan Wright, was home recovering from a concussion. Shooting guard Delonte West was unavailable, two pins in his broken right ring finger, and Odom was unreliable, coming off a 10-day personal leave that tested the patience of coaches and teammates. Kidd's right calf, previously strained, was swollen. Nowitzki's back, which had tightened six days earlier in Memphis, required balance exercises. Smith smiled at Kidd. "Calm down," he said. But Smith, who grew up on a dairy farm in Southern Ohio and now treats the NBA champions as well as the U.S. Olympic team, was no calmer than Kidd. "I'm looking forward to it too," said Smith, 42. "I think we've got tough guys."
How tough? Smith and the Mavs allowed SI a glimpse into three harrowing days that challenged their stamina, their pain tolerance and their title defense.
Two buses ferried the Mavericks from the Ritz Carlton in Scottsdale to US Airways Center in downtown Phoenix for a shootaround Thursday morning. The first bus, for anyone who wanted an optional weightlifting session, left at 10 a.m. The second left at 10:30. Every player was on the first bus. "I've never seen that before," Smith said. The Mavs appeared as eager as snowbirds on a golf getaway.
After the shootaround, Kidd and Nowitzki staged a three-point contest while Carlisle and Smith sat on the scorer's table, debating how to handle Kidd. The plan, dating to December, was to play him in Phoenix, rest him the next night in Sacramento and play him again at Golden State. But Kidd was resisting the strategy and lobbying to start all three games. Since Phoenix was on national television, timeouts would be longer, and Kidd would be able to squeeze in some extra rest. Carlisle and Smith agreed to postpone their decision until the flight to Sacramento.
Before the game, Smith ran out to Paradise Bakery and bought a dozen turkey sandwiches to help the players refuel. Odom needed something stronger. He dispatched a locker room attendant to fetch $60 worth of Red Bull. The Mavericks bounded off the bench for the opening tip, Vince Carter skipping, Kidd high-stepping, Nowitzki leaping in place. Mahinmi, thrust into the starting lineup, let out a spin move and a primal scream.
"Hopefully we can win by a good amount so guys don't have to play high minutes," Terry said. "Then we'll be all right. But if we're in a grueling match tonight, Coach may have to limit minutes tomorrow, and then this will get tough. I can only imagine what it will feel like in three days."
With 7:33 remaining in the game, the Suns led by 10 points and Nowitzki lay on the baseline by the Mavericks' bench, grabbing his left thigh. This was not the start Terry had envisioned. Smith stood over Nowitzki and told him to bend back his leg, deeply bruised from a collision with Grant Hill's knee. Nowitzki was able to return to the game and rally the Mavs to within two points, but on the final play he was a screen-setter and Beaubois missed an open jumper that would have forced overtime. Kidd was upset that Nowitzki hadn't touched the ball. Terry was enraged that Beaubois had taken his spot on the floor. Players let loose their frustration in a heated locker room exchange.
"Everybody keeps talking about the playoffs," Terry said. "We might not make it."
The Mavericks sprawled across the carpet, ice packs on their abdomens and feet pressed to the wall, a technique used by sprinters to facilitate blood flow. They dressed slowly, putting on recovery tights under their suits to improve circulation on the charter flight to Sacramento. Every player was ordered to wear the tights until morning -- the kind of detail that helped deliver a championship last June.
"There's no better time for your best game than the next one," Kidd said. "And we've got two."
The team pulled into the Hyatt Regency in downtown Sacramento at 2 a.m., and Smith was in Nowitzki's room until 2:45 arranging bags of ice next to the bed. Nowitzki set a series of alarms so he would wake up every two hours, ice the thigh for 20 minutes and then fall back to sleep. The regimen worked, because swelling was minimal when Smith stretched and massaged Nowitzki's thigh at the Mavericks' 11:30 a.m. breakfast meeting. Nowitzki would play, and if he was going to push through the pain, Kidd could not bear to take a break. The plan to rest Kidd, in place for three months, was scrapped.
During warmups, Nowitzki did knee bends next to the bench and periodically rubbed his thigh. No one skipped or spun or high-stepped in anticipation of tip-off. "We looked flat," Carter said. "We looked tired. We looked slow."
Terry said he would gauge the Mavericks' energy level on the lift in their legs and the distance on their jumpers. Against the Kings they shot 27.3 percent from three-point range, wearing out the front of the rim. Smith said he would measure their energy on defense by how quickly they scrambled back in transition. The Mavs gave up 110 points and trailed by as many as 21. By the end, the crowd at Power Balance Pavilion paid less attention to the defending champs than to rapper Drake, seated next to the Mavs' bench. Carlisle asked Smith about Kidd. "He can't go tomorrow," Smith said.
Kidd played only 22 minutes and Nowitzki 29, but there was no relief as the Mavericks fell for the seventh time in nine games. Of course, they dropped six in a row last season and a few months later celebrated on South Beach. "Last year we went through tough times, and it brought us together," Terry said. "This year we hit tough times and grow farther apart. That's the biggest difference."
The Mavs lost Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler and J.J. Barea to free agency, replacing them with Odom, Carter and West. Odom is staggering through the worst season of his career, as are Carter and Kidd, and Nowitzki's numbers are down too.
"We're not a team out there right now," said Terry, going so far as to suggest that the Mavericks make a move with five days until the trading deadline.
The gauntlet was in danger of becoming the crucible. Still, scouts watching the Mavs were not ready to give up on them. "They've got such a great staff, I think they can clean this up," one said. "I just don't know if they have the time to do it."
Their bodies said they were due a day off, but their itinerary said they had one more game. "The problem is it's at Golden State," Mavericks assistant coach Darrell Armstrong said. "Those guys love to run." Armstrong played a back-to-back-to-back in 1999, the last lockout-shortened season, and he reached into the history books for motivation. "You have to think about all the guys who came before you," Armstrong said, "who had five games in five nights and flew commercial the next morning." One of them was Jim Barnett, now a Warriors broadcaster, who in 1966 with the Celtics played 12 exhibition games in 12 nights across 10 cities.
"What makes the difference is mental toughness," Barnett said. "You can't give in to your fatigue." During the Mavericks' breakfast meeting at the St. Regis in San Francisco, Carlisle told them to consider all the moments in their lives more arduous than the present one.
Nowitzki slept in Friday and took an afternoon nap, but as Smith taped him at Oracle Arena, he said, "This is the first day I'm tired." Nowitzki felt soreness in his thigh, Terry in his hamstrings, small forward Shawn Marion in his knees. Kidd went through warmups and begged to dress, but Smith shot him down. Carlisle found the freshest legs available, which belonged to guard Dominique Jones, and gave him his first NBA start. "Before, it was about getting through this grind," Smith said. "Now it's about getting a win."
Knowing that jumpers would come up short, Terry wanted the Mavericks to drive, and they took only six three-point shots in the first half. But they started chucking in the second, and midway through the fourth quarter they trailed by 17 points. Nowitzki tried to bring them back with a signature fade-away, but the ball didn't reach the rim. Carlisle pulled him. "It's like you're trying to make plays you think are there," Terry said, "but you can't do it."
In three days the Mavericks lost three games to three sub-.500 teams by a combined 39 points. The biggest blow was to their pride. "That was a great experience, wasn't it?" Nowitzki said, rolling his eyes. The more serious questions -- Was their slump the result of a gruesome schedule or a sign of their demise? Is their mishmash roster truly designed to defend the title or just to buy time as they pursue Dwight Howard and Deron Williams? -- will take longer to answer.
Terry, in a dramatic shift, raised an optimistic voice in the locker room. He reminded everyone within earshot that Haywood, Wright and West were expected back soon. Two days off were coming, followed by cozy home dates with the Wizards and the Bobcats, and no back-to-backs until April. Plus, fried chicken was being served on the fourth floor of the St. Regis, a welcome departure from turkey sandwiches and Red Bull. Owner Mark Cuban fired off a reassuring tweet ending "#rest."
Terry turned to Beaubois, sitting stone-faced at his locker. "These are tough times," Terry said. "We've got to get back to having fun." Beaubois did not respond. "You have a religion?" Terry asked. Beaubois finally nodded. "You've got to lean on your faith right now," Terry said. "This is just a crazy season."
Twelve hours later, the Mavericks were on a plane back to Dallas, for something that suddenly sounded pretty appealing: practice.
Addendum: This story was written March 11. Since then, the Mavericks have won three games in a row, flashing their championship mettle and showing they cannot be dismissed as contenders.