I have for the most part avoided watching pro basketball over the last few years. The main reason for this is the recent period of extended futility in which the Boston Celtics have found themselves trapped. But, I think there are deeper reasons for my distaste. It seems to me that the game has lost any sense of flow and grace. Instead, you watch a game and you see ten virtuoso athletes surrounded by their prodigious egos dribbling into an endless series of isolation plays and 2-on-2 pick and roll.
Then, against my better judgement, I watched game 7 of the current Finals last week. As the game stretched into the hours when I usually go to bed, I realized that here, finally, was the team game that I had been missing.
The last time I watched Quality NBA Basketball was the last good year of the Bird Era in Boston. I had moved to New Hampshire and could get all the games live on local TV. Here was a team that at its best, had everything. In Larry Bird they had a truly dominant superstar. The rest of the front line, Robert Parish and Kevin Mchale provided strong play in the low post. This meant that the offense could flow through any one of three players at any given time. Around this front line, various guards and backups rounded out the team. In the late 80s, the back court was Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson.
When the Celtics played well, it was fun to watch team basketball, even when Bird decided to take over a game all by himself. While they primarily played a slow paced half court game, they excecuted the half court offense with flare and panache against even the most intense defensive pressure. Every set had three or four different options, and required moving the ball to a cutting Bird, or down to Mchale and then back out to the perimeter. There was motion of both the players and the ball, not just the dribble dribble dribble drive you see so much of today.
Watching Tim Duncan and the Spurs take over the game in the third quarter last night reminded me of my old team because they also did it with a spectacular display of half court offense against an extremely intense defensive team. The inside/out low post motion offense that the Spurs ran, combining Duncan down low with Ginobli slashing and good perimeter shooting mirrored the schemes that the Celtics ran back in the day. Of course, the Spurs also have a fast breaking open court dimension the Celtics never did, which is how they dismantled the Suns while allowing more than 100 points a game.
The one area where both Detroit and San Antonio were much more impressive than my beloved Celtics is defense. The Celtics had what you might call a reasonably strong team defense, but they were highy suspect one on one and didn’t have the benefit of any legal zone defense at the time. The Spurs and the Pistons have no such problems. I don’t think I’ve witnessed two stronger defensive teams, and that bodes well for the future of the sport, I think. Ben Wallace, in particular, was everywhere. Rebounding, blocking shots, harrassing the inbounds play, and generally making a pest of himself. But what was truly impressive is that the Spurs not only matched the Pistons defensively, but also looked into the face of a defense that good and moved the ball, set picks and hit shots anyway.
So, there you have it. One late basketball game, and at least part of the faith of one fan is restored by a team that can do anything. They can run and gun, they can make you work for every point you score, and they can slow it down and score against a stifling defense. You don’t see this very often in a team. Bravo.
Another ode to the Spurs got me interested enough to watch one game until the end. I’m glad I did too.