I hope you all enjoyed that, because the Lakers are done.
Well, the Lakers aren't actually done, but that style of basketball they’ve mastered—and we’ve learned to love—will go the way of short shorts, the flattop, and mid-90s Phil Jackson’s mustache before you can say “Brian Scalabrine”.
When the Celtics clinched their 17th NBA championship Tuesday night, they laid a roadblock spike in front of the fast-paced, offense-oriented style of ball that experienced a resurgence in the Western Conference this season. They sent the trend of three-point barrages and transition offense spiraling off the road.
The Celtics won their championship while playing some of the best defense in NBA history. Anchored by Kevin Garnett, their stifling team defense applied constant pressure to ball handlers and protected the paint in a way that would make Bill Russell proud.
This year's Finals were an intriguing match-up, because it represented the classic battle of a great offense against a great defense. In the end, defense prevailed, in frequently spectacular fashion. Even Kobe Bryant, the best scorer in the NBA today, failed to find any semblance of an offensive rhythm.
Next year, other teams will certainly try to replicate Boston's defensive success. That’s how sports work. When a team wins a championship using a certain method that appears workable, its competition scrambles to match that style of play.
The success of teams like the New York Knicks of the '90s and the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons of the '00s were built on the foundations of tough, physical defense. This led to most of the league following their lead, and producing an almost unwatchable product for much of the past two decades.
This began to change when Steve Nash and the Suns began (literally) to run wild in the Western Conference these past four years. Along with rule changes that discouraged physical defense and rewarded team basketball (banning hand checks and legalizing zone defense), the athletic Suns quickly started to dominate the league. Their transition style and offensive flair made them a fan favorite.
The rest of the league took notice. Just look at the stats. In the 2003-04 season, only two teams scored over 100 points a game, while five averaged less than 90. (The horror!) This season, 13 teams scored over 100, with none less 91. This fueled one of the most entertaining, competitive regular seasons in recent memory.
Now that a great offense has proven it cannot topple a great defense, this trend will start to fade. In the past few seasons, the clash of offense and defense had not played out on the Championship stage—the Spurs or the Pistons were always too good. Slowly, the offensive juggernauts worked their way to the top, eager to supplant the reigning champs.
But this year, the battle was fought, and the challenger was vanquished.
The Celtics are not at fault for this. They had the personnel to make great defense an art form. They were never boring, never noxious like Rick Carlisle's Pistons or Pat Riley's Knicks.
From a fans perspective, we need to think about what kind of basketball we enjoy watching from not only good teams, but also from average teams, because that is what we see most of the time.
Consider this season’s Chicago Bulls. For the past two years, they played suffocating defense while pushing the ball up and down the court offensively. This year, their offense struggled, their defensive play regressed, and they produced a disappointing and mind-numbing season.
Unfortunately, the meaty part of the NBA bell curve has seasons like the Bulls 2007-08 campaign. Wouldn’t it be better for basketball fans if this swath of teams were gunning to score 120 points every time out? The Celtics victory drops a turd in that cereal.
The Celtics were definitely great, and they surely deserved the title this year. The problem is, 95% of the league is completely incapable of doing what Garnett and Co. do on the defensive end. They don’t have the system, the ability, or the motivation to play like that night-in and night-out. That isn’t a knock on NBA players; it’s just true. Few have the commitment of a player like Kevin Garnett.
Sadly, NBA GMs are all too anxious to conform to understand that reality. But, they will try, and they will grind the NBA into a slow, sludgy sport full of fouling, turnovers, and scores in the 1980s.
We just had one of the most exciting seasons of NBA basketball in years highlighted by a historic Western Conference. The basketball was as electrifying as ever. Now, it's over faster than a Golden State possession. I hope the likes of Kobe, Chris Paul, and Deron Williams prove me wrong.
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