The other night, during one of the defensive struggles that have characterized these NBA playoffs, particularly in the Eastern Conference, ABC/ESPN analyst Doc Rivers said, "We might just see a team go scoreless for an entire quarter." I was waiting for Rivers or his broadcast partner to laugh, but neither did, and for a good reason. Doc wasn't joking. Given what we've seen this postseason -- winning teams at times barely reaching 70 points and the Pistons blocking 19 shots in a game -- it seems increasingly possible some team could go scoreless.
There's a wonderful irony where pro basketball is concerned. Those who serenade college basketball and find it necessary to reduce the pro game in the process, do so usually by saying with great smugness that "the pros don't play defense."
Of course, this seems particularly stupid now. For the last six weeks, all the NBA has given us is defense. Forwards swoop in to make game-changing blocks of layups in the final seconds. The Nets scored 56 points against the Pistons earlier this month. In the olden days, like 10 years ago, Michael Jordan scored that all by himself in a playoff game. The Nets, by quarters in that game, scored 14, 11, 14 and 17 points. New Orleans scored 63 points in a game against Miami. Okay, you say, that's just the Eastern Conference? Well, the Lakers, the presumptive Western Conference champs and a team with four future Hall of Fame players, have scored 71, 72 and 74 points in the playoffs . . . and they won two of those games.
This postseason I've clicked over to Channel 601 -- that's the NBA Channel on satellite for those of you still stuck with cable -- just to watch playoff games from the '80s and '90s, searching to see if defense is different now, if it's played with more effort or intensity or superior strategy. I had pretty much concluded it was, simply because defense now includes so much more bumping and grinding and because there's so much double-teaming and trapping. If you watch tapes of games from the 1960s, there seemed to be almost zero double-teaming.
Look, I know scoring is down in the NHL, and run production fluctuates in Major League Baseball. But pro basketball has changed more dramatically than any of the team sports. It hasn't just evolved; what's played today isn't remotely similar to what was played as recently as 1986.
Tim Legler, the former Bullets guard who now analyzes games for ESPN, said yesterday on this topic, "Is the object of the game to score more than your opponent, or to prevent your opponent from scoring more points than you score?"
Legler has always looked at the pro game with a more rationally critical eye than most. He was one of the league's best three-point shooters and because he played the entire decade of the 1990s, he's something of a tweener. He entered the NBA when it still gave us prolific offense in the playoffs, and he left it when the 100-point game was becoming a rarity.
I told Legler my theory, that defense is simply better now than it was 10 years ago, that it's played harder, with more contention and confrontation. And he said, "In 1990, when I came into the league, a lot more guys made a living playing offense. Now, because there are so many fewer skilled players in the NBA, to make a living they have to play just that hard on defense . . . The league has gotten so much younger, and there are so many guys coming in from high school who've only been coached by a gym teacher that they don't know the nuances of spacing and ball reversal and cutting without the ball."
Legler totally rejects the notion that the league is loaded with better defenders than it was 15 years ago. "The best defensive team I ever faced," he said, "were the Bulls with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper. Each of those guys was either the best or one of the best defensive players in the league at his position. Each could guard two or three positions. I don't believe these teams now are better than those Bulls . . . or than the Celtics when Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish and Kevin McHale were there."
Legler himself, in an effort to figure out how much is good defense and how much is bad offense, went to the record books to check scores over years and years. In 1993, only 11 years ago, the Bulls and Suns played a six-game NBA Finals series and not only did the winning team average 109 points but the losing team scored more than 100 three times in that series -- 98 twice, and a series-low 92 in the other game.
It's convenient to compare these Pistons with the Bad Boy Pistons of the late 1980s and early 1990s, except that in the 1990 NBA Finals against Portland, the Chuck Daly/Isiah Thomas/Bill Laimbeer/Joe Dumars Pistons scored 105, 105, 121, 112 and 92 points.
You know who started all this stuff don't you? Pat Riley, that's who.
"Riley did it," Legler said with great certainty. Legler knows this because he played against Riley's Knicks teams, which featured "Force Basketball." The first NBA Finals (of the modern era) that were offensively challenged came in 1994, when Riley's Knicks played Houston. Neither team scored 100 points in any game. (God, I love pinning blame on Riley!) You know the previous time that happened? When Minneapolis and Syracuse played in the 1954 Finals. That Knicks-Rockets series set pro basketball back 40 years. And it still hasn't recovered, not really.
Let me say right here and now, though I dearly love pro basketball, I was never much for the 148-142 kind of playoff games the Lakers and Celtics sometime played. There was no real premium for scoring a basket. It simply ought to be more difficult than it was in the '70s. I like defense. And Chuck Daly, Riley, and Doug Collins/Phil Jackson raised it to an art form. I love seeing Richard Jefferson block Chauncey Billups's layup with the game on the line. I love seeing Tayshaun Prince come from mid-court to block Reggie Miller's layup, which may be the play that changes the series. I love seeing a guy like Ben Wallace, who has no offensive skills to speak of, make himself invaluable by simply playing defense like his life depends on it.
But first one to 70 points does seem a little too throwback.
"Those games are interesting," Legler said, "because they're very close, not because of the quality of the games. Zones are a big, big factor. Everything is clogged up all the time. Kevin Garnett was sitting back in Shaq's lap while Karl Malone was virtually unguarded (at the top of the circle). I can't believe this is good for the game. . . . I can't believe a guy just sitting back watching the game and having a beer thinks this is appealing. How can anybody say that it is?"