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Magic Johnson leaned back against a locker in Boston Garden before an exhibition game against the Celtics last month and smiled as he reminisced about those breakneck days of yesteryear, back when every Los Angeles Laker possession was a track meet, when Showtime operated in double time, when defenders might as well have been folding chairs for all the opposition they presented. In other words, back in the 1980s.
"I don't think you'll ever see that kind of fast break again," said Magic, shaking his head. "We had all the pieces. Even guys coming off the bench never stopped running. You know something? A fan took a chance if he went to the hot dog stand, 'cause when he got back, it might be all over."
But these days you can enjoy your dog, grab some dessert, cruise by the souvenir stand and purchase your advance tickets, because when you get back, chances are you will not have missed much. Showtime has become Slowtime. The Lakers, who finished 13th in scoring last season, have gone from breaks to brakes.
And it's pretty much the same story throughout the league.
"The NBA is basically a nonrunning league," says Denver Nugget coach Paul Westhead. Isn't that rather curious? On the one hand we marvel—and rightly so—at the talent of today's athletes, their speed, quickness, power and leaping ability, all assets in a fast-break situation. But on the other hand we see these talents brought to a standstill by a conservative offensive philosophy. Conversation around the NBA these days is about half-court sets, pick-and-rolls and isolations rather than about getting out, filling the lanes and finishing.
Thirty-five years ago—when two-handed set shots were still somewhat in vogue—the Celtics ran the fast break better than most teams do today. Remember all the talk last season about the Nuggets' mucking up the game with Westhead's push-push-push offense? Well, Denver's 119.9 points-per-game average was twice surpassed by those wild and undisciplined Celtics of Red Auerbach; in the 10 seasons between 1959-60 and 1968-69 they averaged 116.9 points a game. And they did it largely because they ran from opening whistle to final buzzer. Overall, scoring in the NBA has declined dramatically. Last season, for example, the 27 NBA teams averaged 106.3 points a game; 30 years ago, during the 1960-61 season, the eight NBA teams averaged 118 points.
Improved defense has much to do with that trend. (More on that later.) But so does the lack of a fast-break mentality. "It's about philosophy," says Pat Riley, the former Laker coach who is now with the New York Knicks. "You have to want to run. I guess enough teams don't want to."
And even the NBA teams known for running—Denver, Golden State, Portland and Phoenix, the four highest-scoring teams in the league last season—are not really fast-breaking teams in the classic sense. What was it about those old Celtic teams, or the Laker teams of more recent vintage, that gave them the classic three- and four-man fast break? What common elements did they have?
To begin with, both teams played great defense. Thus, opponents tended to miss a lot of shots, many of which became fast-break opportunities. And both had great defensive rebounders who were savvy outlet men—the Celtics' Bill Russell and the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Don't forget: No fast break has ever started without the ball. Moreover, the shot-blocking prowess of those legendary centers often created the best kind of fast-break opportunity, i.e., one in which the opponents are heading one way when the ball suddenly starts heading the other.
Second, both teams had the classic fast-break middleman—Bob Cousy for the Celtics and Magic for the Lakers. "They're the best ever," says Auerbach. "No one's even close." And though those Celtic and Laker teams are from different eras, they shared a fast-break philosophy: pass first, look for the shot as a last resort. Several of today's top point guards, the Pistons' Isiah Thomas and the Suns' Kevin Johnson, to name two, are so fast and talented in the open court that they too often take the ball directly to the hole and fail to wait for the classic fast break to develop. Both Cousy and Magic followed the rule that if their teammates got out and ran with them, they were obliged to reward them with the ball. Then, too, both the 6'1" Cousy and the 6'9" Magic could finish the break themselves if they had to, forcing the defense to cover all options. Both were ambidextrous and had a variety of indescribable layup tricks—spin shots, little hooks and duck-unders.