When you think it can't be worse, here's a new low
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Stand back. I'm about to whine.
It's the NBA, which I believe stands for No Baskets Allowed. Personally, I'd rename it the NBE, as in No Baskets Encouraged.
Who cares about offense anymore? It's surely not the coaches. It's not the commentators, either. Frankly, Doc Rivers is starting to worry me a little, and he's not even here yet. Is Danny Ainge listening? Did he hear Doc slobbering all over himself in praise of that Pistons-Pacers Game 2 atrocity the other night, the one saved by Tayshaun Prince's Russell-like block for the ages on a startled Reggie Miller? Does Doc really think that was entertaining basketball? Is that what we have in store the next few years? C'mon, Doc, you know better. Back in 1988 you participated -- I should say, played a vital supporting role in -- one of the great playoff games we've ever had in this town. Larry vs. Dominique, remember? That was professional basketball. I'm still working on whatever it is we should call that travesty masquerading as the Eastern Conference finals in the here and now.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was raised to believe that the object of the game was to take the round ball and throw it through the orange ring. I believe we called that part of the game "offense." This "offense" was what drew most of us into the sport. I don't recall any of my grammar school peers slipping into his Pro Keds or Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars and muttering, "Can't wait to get out there and shut somebody down." When you start playing this game, you lust to touch the ball and put it in the basket.
We'll get to the NBA in a minute, but the truth is this antioffense discrimination transcends the NBA. Last November, I was privileged to see one of the great college basketball games of the season, Boston College's exhilarating 84-81 triumph over Wichita State down in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Afterward, I was innocently pointing out to Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon that when the first timeout was called, the score was 19-18 and the teams were shooting about 70 percent. I kind of thought that was a good thing. Here, however, was Coach Turgeon's reply:
"I guess that's all right if you like offense."
He'd fit right into the modern NBA, where most coaches are only happy if the other team has the ball. Offense, to them, is a nuisance, a quirky thing they can't quite control. Part of the reason for this may be that the coaches know these guys can't shoot, anyway, but it's more than that. If they really wanted to score, they'd institute running games and allow point guards to dictate things. But nobody wants Bob Cousys today, or even Isiah Thomases. And in case you were wondering, now you can see why Larry Brown never quite hit it off with Allen Iverson. Brown has come to despise offense.
The NBA peaked in entertainment value between 15 and 20 years ago. We might as well be talking about a different sport. When you watched a playoff game then, chances are you were going to see some great offense. In 1987, for example, there were 71 playoff games. Both teams scored 100 points in 46 of them. In 1988, it was 42 of 80. That's a nice balance, allowing for both 151-129 games (Dallas over Seattle, 1987) and 89-88 games (Detroit over Atlanta, same year). But 89-88 was about as low as we wanted to go. That was clearly understood.
Many people date the artistic decline of the league from the Detroit Bad Boys, and, while it's true there was a thuggish edge to them, never forget that this was an offensive team. Isiah, Joe Dumars, and the irrepressible Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson were perhaps the greatest three-man scoring backcourt ever. Mark Aguirre was an offensive player, and so was Bill Laimbeer. The 1989 champs scored a respectable 105 points a game, a figure that would lead the modern NBA almost ever year.
The first negative milestone came in 1990-91 when Jerry Sloan's Utah Jazz became the first NBA team since the inception of the shot clock to take fewer than 80 shots a game. The next year, Minnesota (Jimmy Rodgers/Sidney Lowe) likewise slipped under 80 FGA per. Brown joined Lowe in lowering the bar even further the next year (79.4), and he has never retreated, becoming more of an offensive miser with each passing year. They talk about Pat Riley reinventing himself, but the fact is this is not the same Larry Brown who came into the NBA from the ABA, where everyone shared an offensive joie de vivre.
All this has manifested itself in ever-decreasing playoff scoring, and, as a byproduct, diminishing entertainment value. The benchmark Year Of No Return was 1994. In 1993, teams scored 100 apiece in 25 of 76 playoff games. The following year was the onset of the Ice Age, as we only saw both teams reach 100 in 11 of 77 playoff games. This trend accelerated as the century closed, reaching a ridiculous level in 2000 when teams each scored 100 in only 4 of 75 playoff games. It wasn't much better in '01 (7 of 71), but we crept back upward a bit the past two years with 14 of 71 and 15 of 88. Sadly, however, I must report that we are back in the muck and mire, as, after last night's Lakers-Timberwolves game, we have only had four playoff games in which both teams have scored 100. One required one overtime (Minnesota 114, Sacramento 113), another required three (New Jersey 127, Detroit 120).
No wonder these commentators rhapsodize about how wonderful this sludgeball is. They are part of the problem. Guess what coach's team holds the record for fewest shots per game in a season (73.1)? Oh, that would be the 1995-96 Cleveland Cavaliers, coached by TNT's Mike Fratello. And guess whose team was right behind him with a ridiculous 74.7 shots per game? Oh, that would be the Detroit Pistons, coached by TNT's Doug Collins. That same year, Larry Brown's Indiana Pacers were checking in with a skinflinty 75.7 shots per game.
Wouldn't you like to join me in being time-traveled back to the last series in which both teams scored more than 100 in every game of a series? It was a five-gamer between Portland and Phoenix in 1992, a series highlighted by a 153-151 Portland double-overtime triumph in Game 4. And wouldn't you relish reliving the last Eastern Conference series to feature nothing but 100-plus games? That was the Boston five-game victory over Indiana in 1991, otherwise known as the Larry-hits-his-head-on-the-floor series.
Look, I realize there is some legitimately good defense being played in these series, although you must realize that blocked shots are not the be all and end all of defense, particularly if they're not kept in play. But it's pretty easy to stop offenses that never run, include far too many players who have no Plan B, feature no weak-side movement, and give us a minimum of skilled post play.
I watch these Eastern Conference games only because I feel a professional obligation. It's like my eating broccoli, although I really can't even say they're good for me. But if I want to see good NBA basketball, I daydream or wait for ESPN Classic.
On the other hand, I guess these games are all right if you like "defense."
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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