Stop me when you've heard this refrain. This team isn't getting any younger. (Oh, you stopped me already. Well, I'll try to make some salient points the rest of the way. Thank you for your time and patience.)
Even two years ago, the championship team struggled with the athletic Hawks. Last year the Bulls gave us more fits than they had any right to. Now we've dropped two games in a row to young teams and the question has to be asked. How much of a problem is age going to be this year?
I am not backing off my "don't panic" post from a few days ago. This team is constructed to win a championship this year and baring a major injury the will be in the mix at the end (perhaps even as a favorite). However, you can't expect this team to go after the Jordan-Bulls regular season record (no matter what Sheed says). We've been spoiled the last couple of years with the team flying out of the gates like fighter jets launching off of an aircraft carrier. Most teams, even championship teams, don't do that. Losses happen. Sometimes they happen in bunches. The key is to learn from those losses and not let them become a habit.
The Hawks are a young, hungry, rapidly improving team with playoff experience and a bit of a chip on their shoulders. They really get up for games against teams like the Celtics. It is a major statement when they win those games. The Pacers are a young team in search of an identity. They have a number of new faces and a good deal of talent. In short, they've got no pressure and nothing to lose. They were also lucky enough to catch an aging team on the 2nd half of a back to back. I hate to say I told you so, but I was worried about this past week. And I wasn't alone.
Headed into the game Doc was worried about this particular back-to-back because of the timing.
"It's an 8-7 - 8 p.m. start the first night and 7 the next," he said. "(National) TV games always go longer, so you have that working against you, and then you have to get on the plane and have the early start the next night.
"I had our sleep-deprivation guy look at the schedule and point at the game that would be most difficult to win, and he said the Indiana game. But our bench is deeper now, and hopefully that will help."
The bench didn't help enough this time. It is a good bench and on many situations like this they'll be enough to get us over the top. It just didn't happen for them on Saturday.
The fact that Doc even has a "sleep-deprivation guy" speaks volumes about the state of this team. He's focused a lot of coaching energy on "keeping them fresh." He's in a tough spot really. He has to weigh the pros and cons of practice vs. rest. His team is full of vets who know what they are doing by now, so in theory they don't need as much practice as the next team. Still, a team gels and creates cohesion through repetition and practice. Will they get enough of that throughout the season when the coach is canceling shootarounds like it is April?
If the team is showing signs of being weary this early in the season, what happens in the Spring? What if they bring in someone at the trade deadline, are they going to have enough practice time to work him into the rotation? On the more immediate front, will Big Baby get enough reps to learn his new role on the team once he gets back from his injury?
And I've gone this long without even mentioning Kevin Garnett by name yet. Sure, he can get up for the alley oops from time to time. But more and more he's settling for the alley-layup. He's still very, very, very good, but I'm pretty sure he'll never again be the athletic freak of nature that he once was. The difference between very, very, very good and great will occasionally be the difference in a game.
The same could be applied to a certain extent to Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Rasheed Wallace. They have all become wily vets who can't do what they used to be able to do but make up for it by playing the game smarter. Is that enough? I think so, but the margin of error is smaller than it was even two years ago.
And really, that's what it boils down to. These November games aren't exactly meaningless. They all count in the record book and they will eventually determine home court advantage (which is important by the way). However, they aren't as important as keeping everyone healthy and rested and prepared for the playoffs. Once the 2nd season gets under way, we'll have to see if this team has enough in the tank to advance and advance and advance and win it all in the end.
Doc may not want to admit this (at least publicly) but he's essentially using these early season games as glorified practices or dress rehearsals for the playoffs. Mistakes will be made and worked on. It is a tactical strategy that I agree with. Just look at last year. We won home court through the first 2 rounds but it didn't help us get past the 2nd round because losing KG trumped the home court advantage.
The key to this strategy is getting all the vets to adapt their games and remain on the same page together. Everyone is learning how to deal with limitations that they never had to deal with before. There are adjustments to be made. With fewer practices, there's less time to work through those changes and maintain cohesion. There's always a danger that alpha dog instincts will supersede the ubuntu philosophy and players will try to win the game by themselves. Doc needs to keep hammering home the message without getting tuned out. A fine balance. This might be Doc's biggest challenge yet.
So this team is getting older. It is one of those fact you have to live with. Like "we are all dying." Some of us slower than others but we all end up at the end eventually. The important thing is what you do in the time allotted to you. Likewise the important thing to the veterans on this team is how they finish out their careers. This might very well be their last shot at a title. They may not win every game, but if they can re-learn how to win in the playoffs, that's all that really matters.