After every Minnesota Timberwolves game, Anthony Tolliver can be found sitting in front of his locker with ice packs on his knees and wrist and a heavy wrap on his lower back.
Tolliver took a nasty fall early in the season when he was undercut near the basket, and the NBA’s break-neck, condensed season doesn’t offer much time to recover. The games keep coming, and so do the injuries as the abbreviated training camp and condensed game schedule take their toll.
“What’s kind of stunk about this preseason was that it was so short,” Tolliver said. “Our bodies didn’t get acclimated to playing this many games in this many nights. … You’ll probably see more injuries, on average, this year, than other years because of that fact.”
The lockout prevented players from working out with athletic trainers at team headquarters all summer long and shortened the preseason from eight exhibition games to two before they started a regular season that crams 66 games into about four months.
According to STATS LLC, 727 games were missed during the first 307 games of the regular season due to injuries and illness. That’s actually 111 fewer games missed than at the same point last season, but the nature of the injuries that are cropping up hint at the stress being put on the players’ bodies.
Pulled muscles, twisted ankles, turf toe — all ailments that are typically seen in athletes who step onto the court unprepared for the rigors of a game played at full speed. Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Eric Gordon, Luol Deng, Richard Hamilton, JJ Barea and Stephen Curry are among the many players who have missed time early this season with injuries.
“It’s something that you really can’t prepare for, no matter what you’ve done in the summertime,” Celtics center Jermaine O’Neal said. “It’s kind of a quick schedule, everything is compressed, so you’ve just got to try and do the best thing you can do. You’ve already seen a lot of injuries throughout the league, kind of like football.”
Then there are guys like Manu Ginobili (broken hand) and Kwame Brown and Al Horford, both of whom are out more than three months with torn pectoral muscles, who have suffered more serious injuries.
“Those are strange (injuries) in basketball,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said of Horford and Brown. “You just don’t see that. Those are football and weight-lifting injuries. You see a lot of defensive linemen, offensive linemen and weightlifters get those injuries. The time I’ve been in the league, I can’t remember another guy with a torn pec. It’s a strange injury for our league.”
This has quickly become a strange season.
Players watched union leaders battle the league’s owners all summer, a feud that stretched into November before both sides finally reached an accord. And once they did, it was a frenetic push to get started and save as many games as possible.
Some players probably assumed that the season was lost, and instead they were essentially given two weeks to get into game shape. That wasn’t enough time for Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, who recently sat out four games to work on his conditioning and rehab a sore right knee.
“Players and athletes are creatures of habit,” Kings coach Keith Smart said. “They have a time and a clock in their body makeup as to where their bodies need to be at a certain time. That was changed drastically this year, but we’re just glad everyone’s back in the business of playing basketball.
“But you didn’t have that luxury of a long training camp where guys can work themselves into shape, so you can put more stress on your body.”
The stress is like no season that has come before it. Teams are occasionally playing three times in three nights, and a two-day break to rest and rehab aching body parts is a rarity.