Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mutual Assured Defense

Something you probably know about me, if you've been riding for the past few months with the playoff takeaways, or just have a sense of who I am as Hoop Fan... I'm not a particular fan of defense in basketball. It's frequently ragged to watch, hard to quantify from a nerd math point of view, and just, well, prone to all kinds of meathead "analysis." On the continuum of people who want to view the game as human machines in a mathematical situation against the destiny and heart emotional basket cases, I'm much more comfortable with the nerds. Which means offense, and shooting percentages and assists to turnover ratios and rebounding differentials and blocks/steals/free throws and so on, and so on. Judging these men by their "clutchness" seems like a mug's game, or at the very least, something you do when your own laundry is involved, or at the very least, some other laundry that you hate.

And then there's the Bulls vs. Heat series, almost a clinical study in just how hard it can be to score points in this game, between two teams that are built for defense despite having some of the most famous offensive players on the planet.

Start with the Heat, because you have to, being up 3-1 and all. Dwyane Wade might be the best shot blocker to ever play the #2 guard role, or at least, the best to ever do it while being perceived as a superstar. He doesn't take possessions off, harasses all over the floor, more than holds his own on the boards and doesn't gamble badly to get his steals. He'd have a job in the NBA even if he didn't have a jump shot. But since he's a star, he can play aggressively on defense and not get the whistles that a lesser player does. If he's not the best all-around defender at the off-guard position in the Association, he's close, and definitely in the conversation.

And then there's LeBron James. For all of his gifts as an offensive player, I actually think he's better on defense; ridiculous length, tireless motor, with a real thirst for chasedown blocks and causing turnovers to get out in transition and use the power that no one else has. Both Wade and James take charges, provide weak side help for troubled teammates, etc., etc. Oh, and like Wade, James doesn't get the whistles that another guy might.

On the Bulls side of things, there's Joakim Noah. He's basically Serge Ibaka but with a basketball mind, and while he might not have the sheer bulk of a Dwight Howard, he might be better as an overall defender, since he generally avoids foul trouble and is more prone to control his blocked shots, rather than launch them into the cheap seats. He also seems to delight in taking charges and causing any kind of deflection, and all of these guys hit the floor in a blink to save a possession, even when it might not actually be the wisest choice of action, given the time of the game and the relative importance of the ball.

Next up, Luol Deng. Long, fearless, with great body control, perfectly cast in the Chicago system as the lesser light to Derrick Rose, Deng is the ideal Iguodala, the role player with a more consistent handle and jump shot, who seems to study his man relentlessly and assimilate moves over the course of a game to up the ante in crunch time. He may not have much more to go in terms of a ceiling, but there's no denying that he's an outstanding defensive player.

Now, I'm giving short shrift to the rest of the rosters here. Joel Anthony is in the NBA strictly for his defense; he's good. Rose sets the tone for his Bulls team, and while he's not a lockdown guy, he tries hard and makes more plays than he misses. Mario Chalmers is the Joel Anthony of point guards. Taj Gibson has second hop action that makes him a good defender even when he buys a pump fake. At any moment, you can look out at the floor and see nothing but plus defenders.

It winds up being contagious. Kyle Korver is a disaster on defense, but at least here he's trying with all of his heart; trust me, he hasn't always. Chris Bosh wants no part of the rough stuff before this year; now, he's bellowing like Spartacus in the fourth quarter on dunks and changes of possessions, and while you can still dunk on him like he's Shawn Bradley, he's causing problems with his length in the post. Carlos Boozer has no hops and no defensive instincts, but he's doing what he can to rebound, take charges and hit the floor for loose balls. No one wants to be the single sieve in this series, and no one is in anything but the finest shape of their lives. Oh, and they are almost all young, too.

When you mix it all together, you get such an unbridled collection of raggedy that I'm not sure it's even hoop anymore, except for those stray moments when Rose, Wade or James gets some open space. There's not much in the way to flow to these games, nothing along the lines of sudden runs where the opposing coach barely has a moment to call time and stop the momentum. It's not the kind of ball I like.

But I can't deny that it's not compelling, unique, spectacular and deserving of the box-office ratings that it's getting, or that I'm going to be glad when it's over in another game or two. Because, and this is the final point to all this... we're watching the best athletes in the world, in the best condition of their lives, playing the hardest defense that they can. (And yes, Celtics Fan, I see you waving your hand in the corner, telling me that your team played better defense during its title shots. Probably, but at such a slower pace, it's even harder to appreciate it. Go soak your head.)

So if defense is your cup of tea, there's nothing better than this series, and no level that's better than what you've got right now.

At least, until the theoretical next year, when both of these units know each other a little better, and still not be anywhere near old and hurt.

Maybe we need to change the rules again...

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