Schedule Alert: Tricky games in the NBA playoff race

Tracy McGrady goes in on how the Thunder will need Russell Westbrook to shoot more efficiently in order to make a playoff run. (1:48)

As the NBA regular-season marathon ticks toward the finish line, every game is amplified, not only for squads fighting for playoff seeding but for those simply trying to get into the big dance. And, indeed, fates can be decided at the very end, as the Nuggets proved last season when they fell short of a playoff berth because of a loss on the last day of the regular season to Minnesota.

This final stretch is likewise critical for potential contenders hoping to keep their stars fresh(ish) for the long postseason ahead instead of burning them out even more before it ever begins. (*Cough cough Houston, James Harden cough cough*).

Alas, it is also during these final few months of the NBA pre-playoff calendar that the league’s schedule will serve up some of its most perilous fatigue-related landmines to several of the NBA’s biggest teams and names, especially in the hotly contested Western Conference.

Witness what Harden and the Rockets are up against March 20 in Memphis: This will mark Houston’s fourth game in six days, their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set (both of which are on the road). After facing the Hawks in Atlanta, the Rockets will head to Memphis to face a Grizzlies squad that enters the game with, yes, a three-day rest advantage. Managing Harden’s hefty workload has been a storyline all season long (and for years now, really), but it’s even more important in treacherous games such as this one.

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These uphill battles are among the 21 Schedule Alert games remaining in the 2018-19 campaign — or the second half of our full list of 42 that we announced in October.

In other words, we’re at the halfway point, so it’s time for an update. Schedule Alert is based on a formula that identifies games in which travel and fatigue will weigh disproportionately on one of the two teams.

Or, in NBA parlance, it looks for “schedule losses.”

The formula that identifies these games was created by Dr. Cheri Mah, a sleep consultant to NBA teams and physician scientist at the UC San Francisco Human Performance Center. Mah’s formula factors travel, game frequency, recovery time and game location, among other variables, and compares results against more than 12,000 games over the past 10 seasons.

Entering the 2018-19 campaign, Mah’s formula carried a predicted loss rate of 63.1 percent for the 42 Schedule Alert games with a MahScore of 8 or higher.

As the second half of our 2018-19 Schedule Alert slate of games begins with the Suns’ “red alert” tilt in Denver on Friday, we’ve correctly predicted 10 of 21 games, meaning we’re short of the predicted loss rate. One possible factor: For the past four seasons, the NBA has made considerable adjustments to the schedule to create more windows for rest, such as reducing the number of back-to-backs, eliminating four-in-five stretches, etc.

As an example of how fatigue builds over time, just consider Schedule-Alert games before and after Dec. 1 of this season.

Before Dec. 1, there were nine such games — during which tired teams posted a 6-3 record, averaged 112.6 points per game and allowed 108.9 points per game.

However, since Dec. 1, there were 12 Schedule-Alert games, during which tired teams posted a 5-7 record, averaged 105.7 points per game and allowed 109.2 points per game.

Also: In October, we noted that, for the first time ever, we’d be announcing how the formula has fared against the spread. At the halfway point this season, Schedule Alert’s forecast has beat the spread 33.3 percent of the time (in 7 of 21 games) as well as in our lone red-alert game on Dec. 20, when the Rockets lost to the Heat by two points after being favored to win by three, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.

Now, some things to watch as the second half of the 2018-19 Schedule-Alert slate of games is set to commence:

Watch out, Giannis Antetokounmpo & Co.: The Bucks have a league-high four Schedule-Alert games this season and also are one of seven teams that don’t play any teams that are in Schedule-Alert situations. That’s a tough spot to be in for this young team. Even worse, three of their Schedule-Alert games come in March.

Nuggets catch a break: After leading the league in Schedule-Alert games with six last season, the Nuggets have half as many Schedule-Alert games this season and, even better, they’re on the positive end of a league-high seven Schedule-Alert games, including four from Jan. 25 to March 2. That could be key as they try to earn the top seed in the Western Conference.

Sound the alarms: There are seven red-alert games this season — and six of them come between now and the end of the season. As fatigue tends to compound as the season rolls on, these games could lead to some lopsided scores. The team affected most on this front is Miami, which has a league-high two red-alert games — on Feb. 11 at Denver and March 23 at Washington.

March … straight to bed: March has the second-most Schedule-Alert games of any month this season with 10. There are also three red-alert games during that month. Here’s hoping teams rest up before March begins.

Red-alert games marked in bold

Jan. 25: Suns | Opponent: Nuggets | MahScore: 9.5

Jan. 25: Timberwolves | Opponent: Jazz | MahScore: 8

Playoff implications: This is a brutal spot for the Timberwolves, as it will mark their fourth game in six days, their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set with overnight eastward travel across a time zone. After facing the Lakers in Los Angeles the night before in a nationally televised game, the Timberwolves will head out — losing an hour along the way — for Salt Lake City to face a Jazz team that enters this game with a one-day rest advantage. Both these squads will need every win they can get to stay alive in the Western Conference playoff race, but the Timberwolves should be fighting some serious fatigue in this one.

Jan. 30: Bulls | Opponent: Heat | MahScore: 8

Feb. 2: Hawks | Opponent: Suns | MahScore: 8.5

Feb. 2: Nuggets | Opponent: Timberwolves | MahScore: 8.5

Playoff implications: For Denver, this goes into the ledger as their fourth game in six days, third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set. Sheesh. They’ll host the Rockets the night before in a nationally televised game, then head out afterward — losing an hour along the way as they cross time zones — to Minnesota. There, the Nuggets will face a Timberwolves squad that has a two-day rest advantage and will be fighting tooth and nail to sneak into the Western Conference playoff picture.

Feb. 6: Hornets | Opponent: Mavericks | MahScore: 8.5

Feb. 11: Heat | Opponent: Nuggets | MahScore: 9

Feb. 14: Knicks | Opponent: Hawks | MahScore: 8

Feb. 28: Jazz | Opponent: Nuggets | MahScore: 8.5

Playoff implications: Ask any team in the NBA — there’s nothing worse than finishing off a second of a back-to-back set with a trip to Denver, with the thin air, mile-high elevation and the long distance between downtown and the airport. Well, that’s the task for the Jazz here as they continue to fight for a playoff spot. After hosting the Clippers on Feb. 27, they’ll head out that night to Denver to face a Nuggets squad that enters this game with a one-game rest advantage — and, no doubt, a strong desire to remain toward the top of the Western Conference standings so they can secure home-court advantage in the postseason.

March 2: Pelicans | Opponent: Nuggets | MahScore: 8.5

Playoff implications: Could these be the final months for Anthony Davis in a Pelicans uniform? A playoff berth would surely help New Orleans’ case, but this will be a tough place to make progress on that front. This will mark the Pelicans’ fourth game in six days, their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set. After playing the Suns in Phoenix, they’ll immediately head out to Denver to face a Nuggets squad that enters this game with a one-day rest advantage.

March 2: Bucks | Opponent: Jazz | MahScore: 8

March 6: Timberwolves | Opponent: Pistons | MahScore: 8.5

March 8: Thunder | Opponent: Clippers | MahScore: 9.5

Playoff implications: Staying among the top three seeds in the Western Conference is no easy feat, and it won’t be any easier in this red-alert game that ties for our highest MahScore of the season. It’s the Thunder’s fifth game in seven days, their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set featuring overnight travel following a nationally televised game. It will also be the Thunder’s third straight road game. Here, the Thunder will face a Clippers squad that enters this game with a mighty three-day rest advantage and will be looking to bolster their playoff hopes … which would make them even more attractive to potential stars in free agency.

March 10: Bucks | Opponent: Spurs | MahScore: 9

March 14: Thunder | Opponent: Pacers | MahScore: 8

March 20: Rockets | Opponent: Grizzlies | MahScore: 8.5

March 20: Bucks | Opponent: Cavaliers | MahScore: 8

March 23: Heat | Opponent: Wizards | MahScore: 9

March 27: Lakers | Opponent: Jazz | MahScore: 8

Playoff implications: Down the regular-season stretch, every game is more or less a playoff game for the Lakers, who run the risk of — gasp! — missing out on the postseason in their first season with LeBron James. But as much as they’ll need every win, this game will be an especially tall order. It will mark the Lakers’ third in four days, the second of a back-to-back set and will require overnight travel eastward across a time zone after playing a nationally televised game the night before. The Lakers will be facing a Jazz team that will enter this contest with a one-day rest advantage and, like the Lakers, will be fighting for their own playoff lives after making an impressive postseason run last season.

April 5: Kings | Opponent: Jazz | MahScore: 9

April 10: Heat | Opponent: Nets | MahScore: 8.0

Matthew Williams of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this story