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The Breaks Of the Game
Jack McCallum
November 11, 1991
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November 11, 1991

The Breaks Of The Game


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Third, Cousy and Magic got full participation on their breaks because they played for superior teams. Even Riley admits that his Lakers "had the most gifted athletes in the game." Byron Scott and James Worthy ran the wings, A.C. Green or Kurt Rambis came down as the all-important fourth man, the trailer, and supersub Michael Cooper could play any position on the break, including Magic's. The Abdul-Jabbar of the early '80s was a superb athlete who (to an extent) could run with Magic. It was much the same situation for Cousy, whose running mates included Russell (a great athlete who often joined the break after rebounding and outletting), Bill Sharman, Tommy Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, Sam and K.C. Jones, and, later, the indefatigable John Havlicek.

And, finally, as Riley says, both teams had a running philosophy. "If we went 48 minutes without calling a play," says Cousy, "then Auerbach was happy. It meant we were running and probably winning." Neither Cousy nor Magic had to glance at the bench to see if they should pull the ball out, or worry if they threw it away two or three times in a row on the break. Their task was plain and simple: Get the ball out and run again. Plain and simple...and a lot of fun, for both players and spectators.

So why don't teams think that way today? Westhead, something of a voice in the coaching wilderness, sees a conspiratorial aspect to the issue. "It's just a very, well, comfortable agreement between the coaches and the players," he says. "Fans come to a game and see a set play and see teams running things very carefully and think, 'My, this is so orderly. They must be well coached.' And coaches feed on that.

"Players, meanwhile, realize that fast-breaking relentlessly is harder than playing a control game. Sure, they say they want to run, but to do it all the time is hard. Very hard. You have to go to almost another level of consciousness, and players aren't willing to do that.

"A control game is good for the coaches and good for the players, and so it stays the same. When I tried to put in my system last year everybody looked at me like I was Doctor Frankenstein."

It must be added that virtually no one in the basketball world supported Westhead's fast-break philosophy last season. His team played virtually no defense and was not particularly strong in the areas of defensive rebounding and shot-blocking, thereby guaranteeing the failure of his nonstop, quick-break system. Even Cousy at one point called it "The worst thing I've ever seen." But there is no doubt that coaching philosophy has much to do with the dearth of fast-break basketball. "With a fast-break team you put authority in the players' hands more than in your hands," says Don Nelson, the coach of the Golden State Warriors, "and a lot of coaches aren't comfortable with that." The game has become increasingly one of science and percentage. "Every team has two or three main offensive players, and coaches want to make sure they get the shots," says Portland coach Rick Adelman. "A half-court game is the only way to make sure they do."

Piston coach Chuck Daly says that even half-court-oriented coaches come to preseason camp talking about fast-breaking and the importance of getting easy baskets. "But," says Daly, "underlying the whole thing is what coaches are thinking in the back of their minds. 'Sure, we can run during the season, but we won't be able to run during the playoffs.' It's a psychological thing, and it begins with the coach."

Actually, many NBA observers point to Daly's Pistons as having had a profound effect on the deceleration of the NBA game. Despite the open-court talents of Thomas and, to a lesser extent, Joe Dumars, Detroit changed several seasons ago from a run-and-gun outfit to a classic control-offense team, a move that coincided with its rise to the top. "You know how it is," says Magic, "everybody changes with the champion." Daly says that he made the switch not because of some burst of inspiration, but, rather, because of alterations in personnel. Detroit added James Edwards, a rather slow-footed back-to-the-basket scorer, as well as defensive demons Dennis Rodman and John Salley. And when Thomas, Dumars and center Bill Laimbeer started to execute Daly's half-court, pick-and-roll and isolation offense to near perfection, the Pistons had a game plan that was mercilessly effective. Not exciting, but effective. And other teams tried to mimic it.

A final reason that the fast break has diminished is—O.K., coaches, step forward and take a bow—improved transition defense. Coaches didn't even talk about transition defense, much less concentrate on it, in the Cousy-Russell days; and even six or seven years ago when the Lakers' break was exceeding posted speed limits, there was not as much emphasis on it as there is today. Coaches, of course, have always yelled at their players to "Get back!" But sophisticated transition defense evolved gradually over the last decade.

Philadelphia was one of the few teams to have some success at slowing down Magic, by assigning Maurice Cheeks to pick him up as soon as he got the ball in the backcourt, as well as occasionally sending over the long-armed, quick-footed Bobby Jones on a double-team. Hubie Brown, the Knick coach from '82 to '87, used to talk about stopping the point man before he got into the paint; "getting the ball under control higher" was the way Brown put it. One of Brown's disciples, Mike Fratello of the Atlanta Hawks ('83-90), put in certain rules that his players were to follow when confronted with a fast-break situation; against the Knicks, for example, they were supposed to pick up Bernard King as soon as he got out on the break, even though he was rarely the man with the ball. And Bernie Bickerstaff, the Seattle coach from '85 to '90, tried to stop the break by harassing the rebounder and preventing a quick outlet pass, "jamming" him, in NBA terminology. All of these elements—and more—are in the defensive playbook of today's NBA coaches, and the consequent improvement in transition defense has been a factor in curtailing fast-break basketball.

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