I was reading Henry Abbott’s post on TrueHoop about Basketball Reference’s findings that improving a team’s defense is more important to winning a title than improving the same offense. Like Abbott, I started to ask myself why. Shouldn’t adding four points to your own score be worth the same as taking four points away from the other team? Doesn’t that only make sense? But it’s not, and statistics prove it. As Sheed might scream like a wild man, numbers don’t lie.
There must be a reason for it, then, and here’s what I came up with. Defense is about commitment. It’s about passion. It’s about finding the strength deep down in your heart to stop the other team, however you need to do that. It’s about beating your man to a spot, sacrificing your body to take a charge, and rotating to help your beaten teammate. When you have five guys on the court fully committed to winning, they are definitely going to play defense because a significant percentage of good defense is simply the desire to stop the other team. I’m talking about pure desire, too, not just the thought, “Well, yeah, it’d be nice if I kept my opponent from putting the ball in the basket.” A good defense gets its hands dirty.
Think about the defensive difference between Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh. That difference is as wide as the Grand Canyon, and that isn’t because of physical traits: the two are highly similar in both build and athleticism. At this point of their careers, Bosh is even more physically talented. I doubt the difference can be fully explained by coaching, either. I understand that Garnett has been coached by Tom Thibodeau and Flip Saunders, two good defensive minds, but it’s not like Bosh has never been schooled in the art of the hedge. It’s not like his coaches have been so inept as to be incapable of teaching him some solid defensive tactics. Yet, even with an eroding knee, Garnett is an all-world defender, while Bosh can sometimes be confused for swiss cheese.
Why is that, one wonders? My theory is that it has a lot to do with heart. Garnett listens to a coach tell him to hedge and then recover on a pick and roll, and he kills himself to do just that. Garnett explodes at the dribbler coming off the screen, giving Garnett’s teammate time to get around or through the screen and return to a good defensive position. But Garnett’s job isn’t done there, and he knows it. He sprints (not runs, sprints) back to his own man, preventing an easy bucket on the roll. The whole time, he’s screaming out instructions to his teammates, mostly because, well, that’s what he’s supposed to do. It isn’t rocket science, but you’ve got to bust your ass to get the job done.
That same attitude, the one that helps Garnett succeed where Bosh sometimes fails, the one that separates good defenses from average ones, manifests itself in other areas of the game. If a player is willing to work hard on the defensive end, he’s going to dive after a loose ball. That dive may not show up in the statistics and it may not secure that player a huge contract, but if a team dives on a few more balls than its opponent during the course of a game, its chances of winning that game are going to increase.
I think back to the one play that, to me, characterized the 2008 Celtics. It was in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 7, against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Twice, the Cavs tried drives to the hoop. Twice, the Celtics responded with multiple defenders helping at every opportunity. The second time, James Posey swiped the basketball away from a Cav. It squirted out to the other side of the court, while Eddie House and Wally Szczerbiak raced after it. Szczerbiak was ten feet ahead of House to begin with, but House caught him from behind with a burst of speed and dove past him, sliding out of bounds as he saved the basketball to a slashing Posey. Posey was fouled attempting a layup and the Garden crowd went wild.
The Celtics displayed great defense on that play, yes, but just as important was the hustle House exhibited when flying after that loose ball. It wasn’t necessarily a defensive play, but House successfully pursued that loose ball because of the same dedication that helped the Celtics get so many stops that year. The same traits that made the Celtics a lockdown crew helped them win “the battle of the little things,” the plays that don’t show up in box scores.
A team can score points because it’s talented. Put Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on a team and that team is going to score a heck of a lot of buckets no matter what. But even the most talented group of players needs to have a certain mindset to succeed defensively. And it is that mindset, as well as the defensive improvement that comes with it, that makes defense more important than offense.