NEW YORK – Doc Rivers left home for the holiday, lost the game, and loved every minute of it.
"That was perfect," Rivers said, recalling the Boston Celtics' 2011-12 season opener. "I just think it was awesome."
A year after the NBA started its season on Christmas out of necessity, Rivers and others think it's something the league should consider doing regularly. The 2011-12 schedule consisted of 66 games, and while even the advocates for the later start aren't certain how many should be played, they believe it's something worth exploring.
"I think starting on Christmas Day would be better and then going later into July, I think that would be better so the start of our season wasn't overshadowed as much by NFL football and college football," ABC and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. "If you did that, obviously you'd have to extend into July a little bit. But I think 66 games, the only bad thing about that would be people losing some money and so because of that, no one's ever going to do that. It would certainly be better for the product."
A normal 82-game schedule was impossible last season when owners and players couldn't agree to a new labor contract in time. The lockout dragged into November before a tentative agreement was struck on Thanksgiving weekend. It was ratified two weeks later, abbreviated training camps opened Dec. 9, and teams had a little more than two weeks to prepare for the start of the season.
After the expected complaints about lack of preparation and possibility of injury, the season opened with hype that's rarely there for the usual start around Halloween. The first game was in New York, where the Knicks withstood a last shot by Kevin Garnett to hold off the Celtics.
"I thought that game — I thought it was so anticipated, lot of fun. The buzz in Madison Square Garden was amazing," Rivers said. "I really did, I thought it was absolutely wonderful, the timing with football almost over, people ready for basketball."
With football king, even the NBA seems to realize it should lie low in the fall. ABC doesn't begin its national TV schedule until its Christmas doubleheader, and the league and its TV partners kick the hype machine into gear leading into the holiday, with statistics galore about who's played most often, who's played best, who's wearing what uniform, and anything else that can help build the buzz.
It works. ESPN scored its highest-rated Christmas tripleheader for Tuesday's games, and the Knicks-Lakers matchup that opened ABC's doubleheader generated a 5.9 overnight rating, highest ever for an ABC game in that slot.
Rivers thinks it could be even bigger, proposing adding to the fun with some kind of season-opening spectacle, similar to the popular college tournaments.
Minnesota coach Rick Adelman agreed the later start was fine, but like Rivers said there were too many games crammed in afterward. The league finished only about a week later than its regular schedule, forcing teams to play on three straight nights at least once to fit everything in.
Problem is, the return to the regular schedule hasn't offered much relief.
Coaches are still bemoaning the lack of practice time, the frequency of back-to-back games, and other inconveniences that they've had to readjust to this season.
"Of all years I've ever coached, I don't feel like a human being very much. I just feel like a basketball coach," Denver's George Karl said. "That's all I do is watch film, prepare scouting reports, have meetings, go to practice and then travel."
The demands of the schedule and the challenges of navigating it were highlighted when San Antonio sent four top players home before a nationally televised road game in Miami for extra rest, earning a $250,000 fine from an angry Commissioner David Stern.
The Spurs were playing their fourth road game in five nights, which was just as rough as anything that arose out of the lockout schedule.
"I think the schedule of some of these teams is outlandish to me, a lot of it just to get games in," Van Gundy said. "To put teams on national TV on the fourth game in five nights seems counterproductive. I know people will say, 'Oh, the arenas are booked,' and they'll give you many excuses.
"But when you're paying as much as our fans are paying for tickets, to me ... you have to really search out how you can give them the best product, and playing four games in five nights is unfortunately almost ensuring that somebody is not going to be at their best."
More than two weeks ago, Karl was already pondering a brutal holiday schedule that had the Nuggets playing the Clippers in Los Angeles on Christmas night, returning home to host the Lakers the next night, then completing a stretch of four games in five nights with a back-to-back at Dallas and Memphis on Dec. 28 and 29.
"Merry Christmas," he said, hardly sounding jolly.
Playing fewer games is the easy answer, but financially the most unlikely. Neither owners nor players would be interested in giving up a couple hundred games of revenue, which is why Stern quickly brought up the money aspect of it when asked about shortening the schedule during a trip to New Orleans this season.
And going into July would mean completely rearranging the summer schedule, starting with free agency and the Las Vegas summer league.
Plus, the current schedule isn't actually any tougher than normal. The average number of games on back-to-back nights (19.2), and maximum number for any club (22), are at or below their totals in each of the last four full seasons, as are the figures relating to four games in five nights.
But with fewer games last season, marquee matchups seemed to come more frequently, leading to higher TV ratings and nearly unchanged attendance. If the league could figure out how to spread the games out better, the shorter season could be a long-term improvement.
"It was too many games that we played after that in that stretch," Rivers said, "so if there was some way we could figure it out, start off Christmas Day having a tournament or something like the college preseason tournament and start it there, I don't know. But it would be awesome."