In Grudging Praise of the Boston Celtics, and Why Defense Wins Championships in Better Ways Than it Used To

Not terribly long ago in this space, I castigated Nick Saban specifically and offensively timid teams generally for abusing personnel advantages to destroy the very soul of the games they played.  It was very dramatic, and possibly ill-informed, which is how much dramatic writing works.  It was fun and I stand by it, is what I’m saying, even if I maybe shouldn’t.

But I did appear come out cannons blasting against defense generally, which is a sort of bizarre position for a sportsfan to hold and caused me to consider an amendment.  And the amendment is this: While the point of sports should always be to attack (spurring motion), as opposed to strangling gameplay (preventing any motion whatsoever for the illusion of control), the best defenses in our day and age do attack, and are actually just as fun to watch as the Oregon Ducks (well, okay; nobody’s as fun as the Oregon Ducks, but more on that at a later date).

I waxed rhapsodic on the 2011 New England Patriots, but I neglected to point out something important: they lost the 2012 Super Bowl, and they lost because the Giants, as the Giants did in 2008, effectively assaulted the offensive line of the Patriots.  The Giants did not stand softly in coverage, playing some inherently illusory “prevent” defense that I sincerely doubt is a real thing, and simply something broadcasters like to castigate.  They did not crowd the box for the sole purpose of stuffing A-gap runs with a pulling guard (which was basically the essence of all 120+ minutes of 2011/12 LSU versus ‘Bama).  The Giants attacked Tom Brady with superior defensive line play and some well-executed blitzing, and while they did so with less success than in 2008 – Brady played a fair game, by his ridiculous standard – it was still enough to win a Super Bowl.

The reason the Giants’ manner of defensive play is exciting to me while the Tide’s is about as interesting as a six-hour retelling of Gone with the Wind by way the ‘Bama modern dance department* is more complicated than I would like to believe.  I would like to believe that Nick Saban has it in for me personally, and has constructed a football program that is designed with malice aforethought to cause boredom first and actual football victories second.  I would like to believe that Nick Saban is trying to win as uncreatively as possible.

*Please God let this be something that actually exists.

Obviously, this is untrue.  Saban is trying to win as conservatively as possible, which is by necessity boring, but he does so because he can.  The way that elite programs work in college – where everyone is paid the exact same (one scholarship), and salesmanship is as important as coaching – rewards traditional powers like Alabama.  As Chris Brown, the Smart Football headmaster, has pointed out with assists from others, trying to recruit the best QB would actually work against ‘Bama: ‘Bama has the ability to always be the most talented team in 11 of the 12 games (often all 12) that it plays each season.  Therefore, waiting for a supernova talent to power an exciting offense would be ridiculous: any year that said talent isn’t available, the program would stumble.  Instead, Saban recruits what he can find more readily and coach with astounding consistency: elite line talent and outstanding defensive backs.  Because of this, it is (quite obviously) the smart thing to do to be conservative.  The ‘Bama coaches run defensive schemes so clever and complex I couldn’t begin to even summarize them, but the basic approach – overwhelm with superior talent and wear down the opposition slowly – is simply not fun to watch, no matter the incredible skill of the coaching staff and players.

In the NFL, by contrast, there is no way to exert the sort of control ‘Bama presently exerts over all its opponents not called Louisiana State.  The league has a good deal of parity.  Talent can sign where talent pleases.  A cellar-dweller and a Super Bowl champion are much closer together than the cream of the SEC, Big 12, and PAC-12 are to, say, Florida Atlantic University.  To defend one area of the field, or one point of attack, an NFL defense must by necessity leave a sliver of space or a secondary point of attack uncovered.  Defenses used to be able to stuff 8 (!) men in the box to control the run.  They used to be able to play with two pair of corners and safeties playing deep and defending mostly grass.  But then Bill Walsh happened, and Montana and Marino happened, and eventually the Mannings, Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and everyone’s Favorite Human Being Drew Brees* got to making defenses pay for every inch of undefended turf.

*I swear to God he has that plaque somewhere in his house, and it was presented to him by Morgan Freeman.

There are a lot of different reasons for this, and I’ve grossly oversimplified NFL history that I wasn’t even alive for.  But the point, which I think would not be debated overmuch by those more knowledgable then myself, is that over time, the game has become less monochromatic (i.e., run, run, run, punt, repeat) as more offensive (and defensive) options have become available.  The NFL, while often caught navel-gazing and occasionally immune to large-scale innovation, has progressed to the point where being a “spread quarterback” (a vague moniker) is no longer a stigma and championship-winning teams will roll five wide for many possessions, or use their tight ends as ungodly monsters defensible by neither man nor beast.  Accordingly, defensive line play and clever blitzes are essential to survive the onslaught.  The defense, in other words, attacks just as ferociously as the offense, resulting in big plays for both sides, less certainty, more daring, and incalculable entertainment.  If defense wins championships in the NFL, it is a defense of multiple looks, risks taken, and relentless attack from the line.  It looks almost like offense.  It’s a lot of fun.

_ _ _

I’m trying to get to the point in my writing where I can get in a few thousand words without mention of the Miami Heat.  This essay is not going to be that success.

But the mention will be mercifully brief: because of my ongoing emotional issues related to the Heat, I do not like the Boston Celtics.  And not because I hate/respect the Celtics (thank you, 30 Rock) like I do the Bulls (i.e., want the team I root for to beat them, but admire their success otherwise).  I hate the Celtics without much of the respect, and would sort of like to see the team folded, Doc Rivers retired, the TD Garden drowned in the sea, and the players dispersed to wander the earth like post-apocalyptic orphans.*

*In this scenario, Kevin Garnett regularly eats the faces of human beings for food.  It’s not happy for anyone.  But at least the Celtics don’t exist anymore.

However.

Despite my irrational, rooting id raging against all things green, the parts of my brain that actually process strategy and cohesion have grudging but hefty admiration for the Celtics – particularly the ’08 title squad.  And it’s because of their defense.

In Olden Tymes, a basketball team had the right and privilege, whenever it so pleased, to enter the ball into the post and watch the tallest, baddest man on the court shoot from short distance.  It was awesome for the tallest and baddest man.  Less so for others.  For this reason, a very good way to win a title was to have the tallest and baddest man.  It was practically the only way.  Despite the existence of Michael Jordan, this has largely stayed true, with Shaq and Duncan and Hakeem collecting the titles MJ wasn’t there to acquire.  It was even true the season prior to this one lately past for the 7-foot pair of Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler.  It should’ve been true in 2008 for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.  Except that Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol had to play against the Boston Celtics.

Because of rules changes, a team cannot necessarily just enter the ball into the post anymore.  It may seem like a relatively easy thing to do when the league makes certain types of defense illegal.  But since zone defenses, or switches of any type, are now allowable, the defending team has the ability to front a larger player with help coming, or trap a player of choice on the perimeter, or flood the lane with defenders ignoring their primary target to contain a greater threat.

_ _ _

Kevin Garnett might seem like the tallest, baddest man on the court, and that is because he usually is.  But he’s not a bulky center.  He was and remains a different sort of player than the league had seen before his time, even though his spiritual children are appearing all over draft boards.  Kevin Garnett is fast, relentless, and slim despite his strength.  He is a known and notable solo defender, but his real skill is that he can read what the offense wants to do, then direct his teammates where they need to be or get to that space himself in so little time it’s kind of stupid.  These skills were obviously useful before the 2001-2002 season, but that season zone defense rules were entirely abandoned.  This allowed Garnett to become even more defensively ferocious and useful.  He was no longer, for example, attached to the hip of a cutter (an old rule); he could ignore the cutter and work against whomever happened to present the clearest danger at the moment.  He could roam the court.  He didn’t, by rule, have to guard anyone in particular, so he could guard everyone who came his way.

Garnett was scarcely the only committed, smart defender on that 2008 squad, but he was unquestionably the best and the leader – both by example and by calling the shots for his team – of that defense.  With his freedom and the ingenuity of Doc Rivers came something new into the league.  Something terrifying.  Something that essentially couldn’t be scored upon with any real consistency.

_ _ _

You can watch the historical record of the dominance.  This particular video is wonderful because the Lakers fan who put it together sounds ready to hang himself at any moment during the dismal collage, and accordingly scored it with a drunkenly meandering piano.  I love it.  But said Laker fan is also correct in much of his analysis, and its a useful primer on the weaponry displayed by the Celtics in 2008.  They force the action, and almost magically force the offense to react to them, which is strange and wonderful in sports where the offense by its nature holds all the cards.

Watch again.  Don’t look at Kobe; look at the Celtics.  Watch them move.  Watch them fight.  Watch them attack.

Sometimes, defense isn’t about throttling the game to a halt and choking the life out of a stadium.  Sometimes defense is the most interesting thing happening on the court.  Even when that defense is dressed in Celtic green.

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