Grinding out back-to-back games is the most grueling aspect of an NBA season, and performance in back-to-back games provides an excellent barometer for determining which teams are the most consistently dominant.
When it comes to back to back games, most teams perform much better in one game over the other; sometimes it is the first game and sometimes it is the second. It is extremely difficult to play well on consecutive nights, but the teams who manage to do so are the wheat that has separated themselves from the chaff that is the rest of the NBA.
Of the 16 teams I examined—the eight Eastern Conference and eight Western Conference teams that would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today—only seven of the teams (Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Hornets) have managed to outscore their opponents per 100 possessions on both nights of their back to back games.
Not all of those seven teams are created equally, though. Very good teams are those who can outscore their opponents by 100 possessions on consecutive nights, but the teams that have the consistent dominance of an elite team are the ones who can perform that feat with no significant drop-off in their performances.
In the Eastern Conference, two teams, the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls, qualify as the most consistently dominant squads in back-to-back contests.
The Heat have outscored opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions in the first game and by 7.0 points per 100 possessions in the second game. Not only are the Heat handily beating their opponents on both nights, but there is only a difference of 1.5 points per 100 possessions between how they play in back to back games, displaying a high level of consistently excellent play.
The Bulls have also shown themselves to be a consistently elite team in back-to-back games, although to a slightly lesser extent than the Heat. In their 14 back-to-back games, the Bulls have outscored their opponents by 5.7 points per 100 possessions in the first game and by 6.9 points per 100 possessions in the second.
While the Eastern Conference is home to the Heat and the Bulls, which are two of the top three NBA teams in back to back games, it is also home to the most Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of all the 16 playoff-bound teams, the Boston Celtics.
Surprisingly, since the Celtics are universally agreed upon to be a championship-caliber team and have the best record in the Eastern Conference with 37 wins and 11 losses, they are the ones with the highest difference between their performances in back to back games, a difference of 13.8 points per 100 possessions.
In the first games, the Celtics have outscored their foes by 14.3 points per 100 possessions, but on the second night of back-to-back games, they are only beating opponents by 0.5 points per 100 possessions.
The Celtics are unbeatable on the first night, but very susceptible to defeat whenever they are having to play their second game in a row. Therefore, no NBA team should fear the Celtics provided the Celtics played just the night before. Under that condition, the Celtics are no better than a .500 team.
Both the Atlanta Hawks and the Orlando Magic are two Eastern Conference teams that also have a difference of more than 10.0 points per 100 possessions between their play in back-to-back games.
The Hawks have a difference of 12.0 points per 100 possessions between their back-to-back games, being outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions in the first game and outscoring their opponents by 7.6 points per 100 possessions in the second game.
For the Magic, there is a drop-off of 10.2 points per 100 possessions between their back-to-back games. The Magic outscore their opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions in the first contest and only by 1.2 points per 100 possessions in the second. As impressive as the performances in their first games have been, there is a troubling lack of consistency when they have to play the next night.
In the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Lakers are not just the best Western Conference team in back-to-back games, but they are the best in the NBA in their back-to-back performances.
The Los Angeles Lakers have outscored their foes by 13.1 points per 100 possessions on the first night of back-to-back games, second only to the Boston Celtics in first game performances, and have outscored their opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions in the second game, second to no one.
For all the criticism heaped upon the Lakers, criticism that only rings true if one is talking about the complete lack of production from the point guard position, they are still elite.
The San Antonio Spurs, who appear elite based on the fact they hold the best record in the NBA this season with a 40-8 mark, are decidedly un-elite in back-to-back games, placing them squarely in the same boat with the Boston Celtics as a team that is not dominant across all aspects of the game.
In the first games of back-to-back contests, the Spurs have outscored their opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions, but have been outscored by 1.1 points per 100 possessions whenever called upon to play the next day. That difference of 10.3 points per 100 possessions makes the Spurs one of the most inconsistent NBA teams in back-to-back games, a distinction that certainly tarnishes their stellar record just a bit.
Comfort for the Spurs can be found in knowing that they are not the most inconsistent Western Conference team in back to back games, however. The award for that dubious honor goes to the Utah Jazz with a difference of 12.3 points per 100 possessions between their back-to-back games.
The Jazz are outscored by an astounding 11.4 points per 100 possessions in the first game and manage to just outscore their opponents by .9 points per 100 possessions in the second.
Poor performances in back-to-back games will not affect the Celtics and Spurs once they reach the postseason, but with seven sets of back-to-back games left for the Celtics and 10 sets of back-to-back games left for the Spurs, it could very well play a huge role in deciding seeding in the playoffs and which team receives the ultimate prize of home court advantage.
If at the end of the season the Heat or the Bulls sit atop the Eastern Conference and the Lakers have the best record in the Western Conference, it should not be surprising if back-to-back games are what allow them to overtake the Celtics and Spurs.