A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece questioning why the Celtics and Spurs, two teams who play extremely similar basketball, are oftentimes understood so drastically differently. The overriding narrative of the Celtics circulates around the lauded concepts of "hustle" and "unselfish play", while the Spurs are derided as "boring," which they aren't, and "old," which they may in fact be. During the Hawks-Celtics series, a brief glimmer of revolt erupted in the basketball world as the immediacy of explosiveness and swagger seemed to overwhelm the carefully crafted narrative of renaissance ball constructed around Boston. But alas, the Celtics survived and descended into an offensive wasteland, first against the prodding and unsophisticated Cavs, and later against the bored (distinct from boring) and unexplainably ineffective Pistons.
All the while, on the other side of the country, the Lakers seized our attention with their seemingly unstoppable fusion of style and skill. They seemed to have mastered a system which combined fluidity and effectiveness in a way that many people (read Suns fans) had only dreamed of. And in a stroke of economic luck for the NBA, both these highly praised franchises found themselves in the Finals.
Then something tragic happened. The fluidity seemed to collapse, the effectiveness crumble, and a Lakers team that rolled into the Finals having only lost 3 times in the post-season finds itself down 2-0. And how quickly the mobs turned on the beloved Celtics. They have become destroyers of grace, the sworn enemy of artfulness. The Celtics, through democratic defense and physical basketball, have taken a slick and sassy LA squad and reduced it to an ineffective collection of uncharismatic Europeans led by a foul-mouthed superstar.
I have repeatedly defended the aesthetic value of “physical” basketball. I always felt to act as if muscularity and grit don’t have a style all their own is to miss the beauty of contact sport. I would be lying if I said I thoroughly enjoyed Sunday night’s game, but mostly my disgust arose from the Lakers abysmal coverage of the pick and roll and their non-existent attempt to defend against the transition three-pointer.
But the specifics of game 2 aside, the Celtics-Lakers final has created an interesting aesthetic clash, characterized by those who value “creation” vs. those who value “destruction.” Historically, I have been in the latter camp, but, in these playoffs in particular, I have been struck by instances in which the two overlap. Could anyone argue that Tayshaun Prince’s oeuvre of defensive stops doesn’t transcend the simple negating purpose of the moves he is implementing? Or Josh Smith’s Icarian blocks? Even well executed help defense can seem to momentarily give birth, even if its only children are fear and confusion.
Defense doesn’t merely require trust and fundamentals, it requires pride and a sense of ownership. Or if electricity and showmanship is what you seek, then why ignore the finger-wags and ominous glances of defensive masterminds. There’s more to be said on this topic, but suffice it to say that to conceive of defense as merely a negative activity as opposed to an act of self-expression is to ignore prowess as it stares you straight in the eye.