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Strong rebound after '90s

Today's game scores points in many ways

Second of two parts on the state of the Celtics and the NBA.

Don't start.

Don't start with the ''last two minutes" riff. Don't start with the ''they don't hustle" riff. And, please, don't even think about going off on the colossally ignorant ''they don't play any defense" riff. Don't start on any of your tired riffs unless you've actually been watching the NBA as it starts to evolve back into true NBA basketball.

There was plenty wrong with the NBA as it slogged its way through the 1990s. Future generations will regard those as the Lost Years, the NBA equivalent of the Dark Ages. It was a peculiar time when offense was regarded as a filthy word and teams could put away their three-digit scoreboards for weeks upon end. It was a sham of a travesty of a mockery of a once vibrant and beautiful game, and shame on everyone concerned for letting it happen. But it had nothing to do with any refusal, or inability, to play defense.

What happened, anyway? Well, the NBA just simply lost its way. It copycatted two coaches, one very successful and one partially successful, until what we had were lemmings plunging off the cliff. It was almost as if someone had found a way to outlaw independent thought. Simply put, defense -- or non-offense -- was in. Offense was out. Better to have no turnovers than three successful fast breaks and one turnover. Oy.

It all started with Chuck Daly and the Bad Boy Pistons. They were the first post-Los Angeles/Boston/Philadelphia champs and they had their own identity. They were not pretty. They were mean, tough, dogged, and perhaps even reflective of the Motor City itself. They were equal parts skill and thuggery, but they glossed over the former and emphasized the latter.

They won it all in 1989 and '90, propelling Daly to the Hall of Fame and the honor of coaching the one and only Dream Team. They were succeeded by the Bulls, which means Michael Jordan & Friends, featuring Scottie Pippen. There were occasional nods to the Triangle Offense, but the Bulls were always all about Jordan -- the ultimate virtuoso -- and thus left behind no true team legacy.

And then came the most curious transformation in NBA history. Right before our eyes, Pat Riley, ringmaster of Showtime, had become Pat Riley, slicked-back Prince of Darkness. Say hello to the rock-'em, sock-'em New York Knicks, the world's best ugly team. What got into Riley? To this day, we don't know. Absent Magic Johnson, did he think fast breaks could, or should, never be conducted again? Absent Magic, did he swear to reinvent himself, Just Because? We'll never know.

What we do know is that the 1994 Knicks came close to winning a title (up, 3-2, heading back to Houston) and they established a new standard of hoop drudgery. And we know it caught on.

Daly was in attendance at the 1994 Finals on a TV gig, and he found himself waving away those who wished to interview him in his capacity as basketball sage. He knew what they wanted. ''Don't blame it on me!" he wailed when people pointed out that in the entire Eastern Conference preliminary rounds, there had been one game in which both teams broke 100. There were no such games in the Finals.

And he was right. What people had forgotten was that his 1989 champions averaged 105 points per game, which would have led the league several times in the '90s. Isiah Thomas was an offensive player, and so were Joe Dumars, Vinnie ''The Microwave" Johnson, Bill Laimbeer, Adrian Dantley, Mark Aguirre, and James Edwards. The Pistons played offense and defense.

Falling into defensive trap
And that brings us to the 2005-06 NBA, where the slow process of transforming the league from the '90s sludgeball back to real NBA basketball is proceeding nicely. As Exhibit A, we give you the Detroit Pistons, the champions once removed, who, under Flip Saunders, are emulating their ancestors by combining one of the league's shut-down defenses with a crowd-pleasing offense that mixes efficient half-court sets with, yup, old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness fast breaks.

A brief tutorial: The biggest difference between the NBA of the glorious 1980s and the NBA of today is the sophistication, skill, and downright intensity of the defense. You hear about all these great young athletes? For years, the coaches have put more emphasis on utilizing that athleticism on the defensive end than the offensive end.

''When I played, we might double-down on a big man," says Danny Ainge (1981-95). ''At most, it was a two-man rotation. Then we got to a three-man rotation. Then the Pistons came along, and they had [Dennis] Rodman and [John] Salley. Chuck Daly went to a four-man rotation. And that's where we are now, with better athletes than we've ever had before. Between the scouting and the traps and the quality of the athletes, it's a different ballgame."

''The athletes are better and the league is almost over-scouted," concurs Celtics coach Doc Rivers, whose playing years were 1983-96. ''I don't think people understand. When I started, we'd go out West and the first time we'd see anything concerning the opponent was right before we played them. Now we've got video files on everyone."

In the '90s, it was all about defense, on top of which practically every coach was so distrustful of his offense he felt the need to call every play (conspicuous exceptions: Don Nelson and Paul Westphal, a pair of ex-, ahem, Celtics). They should have changed the league name to NOA -- No Offense Allowed.

''Coaches made the game the way it was," acknowledges Ainge. ''It wasn't the players."

''The game was so slow, it was driving fans away, all over the league." agrees Rivers.

Rivers estimates that the ratio of energy expenditure between defense and offense was 70-30 in favor of the latter in those days, and some nights even worse. Now? ''At least 60-40, and getting better," he submits. ''I believe in both, obviously. You need the ability to play offense and you need the ability to get your stops when you need them."

Better blend of athleticism
The offenses are not as good as they were in the '80s, but expansion and the trend to youth has something to do with that. The important thing is that more coaches are offensive-minded and the average NBA game is actually recognizable as an NBA game, at least more often than in recent years.

That doesn't mean the score has to be 130-129, although that's always nice. As proof, Ainge cites the Nov. 4 game between the Celtics and Pistons, the one Richard Hamilton decided with no time left. The final score was 82-81, but had you not looked at the scoreboard, you would have assumed it was at least 102-101, for there was action -- most of it unscripted.

''It wasn't the number of shots or points," Ainge points out. ''It was the way the game moved. I loved it. You didn't see that kind of game in the '90s very often."

The defense is still being played at a high level, but now the defenses are being forced to confront more challenging offenses than we have seen in a long time. The result is a much better night-in, night-out product. And it is the best basketball in the world.

Don't get Danny and Doc started.

''I call it the 'college trick,' " Rivers says. ''The NBA athletes are so much better. And these college people sell this nonsense that the NBA doesn't play any defense."

''I love college basketball for what it is," Ainge says. ''But it doesn't compare in talent. If we had put that Detroit game in Cameron [i.e. Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium], people would have walked out and said, 'That's the greatest game I've ever seen.' "

It has long been true that in the course of every NBA season (yes, even during the Lost Years), there would be at least 100 games annually that, if placed in a classic college atmosphere with the bands and the cheerleaders and overall pageantry, would have people walking out babbling about having just had a once-in-a-lifetime athletic experience.

And the way things are going six weeks into the season, there will probably be 200 of them this year. Check it out.

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