Kevin Durant received a text message from Thunder head athletic trainer Joe Sharpe over the weekend. It had explicit instructions for how Durant should handle a rare two days off.
“‘Stay in bed for 10 hours,'” Durant said the text read.
For once, Durant listened.
“That's what I tried to do to get my body back and programmed to being in Oklahoma City,” Durant said.
The Thunder returned early Saturday morning from a season-long, five-game road trip. It spanned eight days, starting in San Antonio before culminating in Salt Lake City. Another grueling stretch is on tap, as the Thunder will now play seven games over the next 10 days, which explains at Sharpe's suggestion.
But six of the next seven will be played inside Chesapeake Energy Arena, and the Thunder has the unusual luxury of kicking off this stretch Tuesday night against Utah on the heels of a three-day break between games. Because of the lockout-shortened and compacted season, it's the only time this season, excluding the All-Star break and the season opener, that the Thunder will have three days between games.
It couldn't have come at a better time.
“I did feel it for once after we played Golden State in that back-to-back,” Durant said of the season taking a toll. “But just having these three days is really going to help me get back to my body being on the right stage and ready to play.”
Anyone who has followed Durant closely throughout his four-plus NBA seasons knows he never admits to being fatigued. Still just 23, Durant has consistently reasoned that he's young and could and would play 48 minutes every night if he could.
But this season's grind is different.
“Before the games, I was sleepy,” Durant confessed about the recent road trip. “It took me a couple of minutes to really get revved up and going. But now, to be at home and have three days off, hopefully I can feel good from the beginning.”
With three or more days of rest last season, Durant averaged 28 points and 7.1 rebounds, numbers that narrowly trailed only his 30.9-point, 7.3-rebound average on two days of rest.
Russell Westbrook was at his best last season when getting three-plus days of rest. In his five games that came on three or more days of rest, Westbrook averaged 23.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 9.0 assists and 0.8 blocks in those games, while adding 1.8 steals.
James Harden, meanwhile, was the lone member of the Thunder's top trio who failed to take advantage of the ample rest last season. Harden averaged 10.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 0.8 assists while shooting just 38.5 percent on three-plus days of rest, his lowest numbers in back-to-backs or any amount of days off.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks resisted the urge to hold practice Sunday, saying he felt his team needed and deserved the day off. The decision gave Thunder players Saturday and Sunday off, a rarity that Brooks likened to a high school team's schedule.
“We've had a tough stretch of games the last three or four weeks, and we have a tough stretch of games coming up,” Brooks said.
With 27 games in the books, minutes will soon become more important to watch. So far, the Thunder has benefited from a few early season blowouts, which allowed the starters to sit the entire fourth quarter in four games this season. Still, the core three of Westbrook, Harden and Durant are near or above their minute averages from last season.
Durant is averaging 38 minutes this year after logging 39.4 through 27 games last season. Westbrook is averaging 35.1 minutes, just 1.5 fewer than his per game rate last year. And Harden is up significantly, now at 31.4 minutes after averaging just 25.5 through this point last year.
But with this Thunder team, 22-year-olds Harden and Serge Ibaka, as well as 23-year-old All-Stars Durant and Westbrook, might not need the rest as much as veterans such as Kendrick Perkins, 27, Nick Collison, 31, and Nazr Mohammed, 34.
“I think everybody needs time off no matter how old you are in this league. But you just have to be wise about it,” Brooks said. “I've been on teams when you had 33- to 36-year-old guys. They practiced, but they only practiced a third of the practice. They would warm up and warm down. They tried to trick the whole team like they were practicing. But that's part of being a veteran. You've earned that right.”