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In Defense of Hard-Nosed NBA Defense (or Why You Can Still Enjoy NBA Basketball When Your Team Isn’t Scoring)

Kevin Garnett guards Pau Gasol

Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol Photo Credit: Icon SMI

While the NBA continues its efforts to cleanse itself of the Tim Donaghy muck that’s sticking like chewed-up wad of gum to brand-new shoe, there’s another basketball entity whose good name has been repeatedly besmirched as of late that has provoked my ire more than the great gambling gaffe.

I speak of poor, underappreciated “Hard-Nosed Defense,” a bedfellow most any NBA team needs to employ to harbor any hopes of prolonged success, yet one that many observers decry as impure, as boring to watch, as indeed a threat to all we hold sacred in the game of professional basketball!

Throughout these NBA playoffs, defense has had its good name dragged through the mud like Mark Borchardt as Mike in the pivotal climax of Coven. It’s an injustice, a gutless crime, and a damn shame.

As the old saying goes, defense wins championships. Go down the list of NBA champions over the past 20 years and you’ll find that most all of them employed solid team-defense tactics fully capable of orchestrating a stop when needed most. Sure, not all of them were infallible units on par with the San Antonio Spurs championship run of the ’00s or these ’08 Boston Celtics, but most of them have hung their hat to some degree on their ability to stop their opponent. That ability, my friends, is a beautiful thing and most certainly not an easy thing to instill in today’s NBA player. And it’s an ability that should be treasured, not reviled.

(Shoot, you could argue that the importance and performance of top-level defense is even more important in the NFL… and I rarely hear anybody complain about how the best NFL defenses are a bore to watch or that they’re ruining the game.)

Watching your favorite team trot onto the court and collectively shoot under 40% doth not necessarily make for an exciting viewing experience; I get that. Paying $100+ for decent seats to a live game, only to see your favorite player struggle to find an open shot and chuck up ill-advised jumpers with a hand (or two) in his face can be frustrating and make for a long, bitter ride home after the game; I feel ya.

Tough shit. Get used to it. Elite defensive teams are alive and well, and when the Boston Celtics win their well-earned 2008 NBA Championship this week it’ll be further proof that just like good pitching beats good hitting in baseball, good defense will usually beat good offense in basketball.

Defense! Defense! Defense! Defense! Defense! after the break…

Aside from alley-oop dunks or buzzer-beating prayers, there’s nothing more exciting in an NBA game than a bruising defender perfectly timing a flimsy field-goal attempt and spiking it like a volleyball into the face of some yuppie sipping on a pina colada at their courtside seat. It’s even better when the block comes from a helpside defender.

NBA help defense can be beautiful

And speaking of helpside defenders, there’s something strangly alluring about five athletes functioning as one solid, cohesive unit like tentacles stretching out from the same torso. About pressuring the ball from baseline to baseline, getting hands in faces, about causing turnovers and turning it around back down the floor for a high-flying dunk or otherwise theatric fastbreak opportunity.

When Hubie Brown dissects such displays in slow motion on TNT and emphasizes the many working defensive parts that helped lead to an easy offensive bucket, the man takes on the personality of an orchestra conductor. Indeed, stellar team defense can be almost symphonic in its rarified, perfected glory.

Look, West Coast Basketball is there for a reason: to watch thoroughbreds run up and down the floor with little to no resistance in their pursuit of racking up 125+ points for their team. And there’s a very good reason why that brand of basketball virtually disappears by the time the calendar annually flips over to May.

Brandon Roy and Houston Rockets Photo Credit: Icon SMI

I enjoy watching the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets of the league as much as anybody else. Just like I appreciate good, solid defensive basketball I also have respect for prolific offense. It’s not one or the other with me… and it shouldn’t be with you, either.

David Stern and his Keystone cops gaggle of referees have done their best to emphasize offense first and defense never over the years, but the fact remains that the ability to manufacture stops–repeatedly–and make made baskets hard to come by is tantamount to winning games and especially winning a championship. It is how it has been and it is how it shall be. No matter what.

Tonight when Boston and Los Angeles take the floor for Game 6, don’t begrudge the Celtics for making life difficult on Kobe Bean Bryant and his supporting cast. Next season, don’t turn the channel and look away in disgust when the Detroit Pistons or San Antonio Spurs or Cleveland Cavaliers are grinding it out with a like-minded adversary.

And most of all, don’t be “that NBA fan” who complains that there’s not enough scoring and that games that find both teams finishing in the mid-80s is always, without question, “ugly”…even though sometimes it can be. (Okay, you have ETB’s full approval to always tune out the Spurs as long as Popovich, Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili are in the fold.)

There’s beauty to be found in hard-nosed, hardcore NBA defense. And unless you’re going to tune out the world’s most entertaining professional sport altogether–which as you may have guessed is not something we recommend here at Empty the Bench–you might as well hunker down and learn to appreciate that beauty because it’s not going anywhere.

Related: Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Postcards from LA, Tim Donaghy, Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol


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