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There is talk around the league, though, that the break is coming back. The Indiana Pacers, who have a chance to be one of the NBA's most improved teams this season, have all the classic fast-break elements (speedy point guard and wingmen, the will to run) except for a big-time defensive rebounder. One must assume that the Knicks will run under Riley, who wants his club to be "the hardest-working, best-conditioned, least-liked team in the NBA." Cotton Fitzsimmons says that his Suns "spent a great part of our preseason working on the classic fast break," i.e., getting KJ to slow down and look for wing support, and instilling a "catch-up-to-Kevin" mentality in his wingmen. The presence of versatile backup guard Sedale Threatt to spell Magic and Byron Scott might make both of them fresher and thus restore part of the Lakers' up-tempo game. The Celtics, despite the preeminence of their 105-year-old front-court (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish), ran last year under coach Chris Ford and will do so again this season. The 76ers will be more of a fast-break team now that Johnny Dawkins is back at the point after recovering from a knee injury. The SuperSonics also have many of the components needed to get the break rolling, particularly if third-year forward Shawn Kemp and Benoit Benjamin, the enigmatic center, hit the defensive boards aggressively and consistently.
And one only hopes that Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan takes the shackles off John Stockton and Karl Malone, potentially the finest point guard-wing finisher duo since Magic and Worthy. There is simply no reason, other than Sloan's insistence on a half-court game, that Stockton and Malone can't double their fast-break opportunities.
And lo and behold, even the grind-it-out Pistons are talking about running. Why? Largely because the champion Chicago Bulls have brought half-court defense to its highest level. Chicago all but destroyed the execution of the two most precise half-court-executing teams in the league last season, the Pistons and the Lakers, suggesting that a change in strategy is in order for those two teams—and for the rest of the league.
"The Bulls are so good at coming up with loose balls, making steals and rotating to create double teams that opponents have a hard time beating them in half-court situations," says Daly. "Whatever success we had against them in the playoffs—and it wasn't much—came, surprisingly, when we ran. We had no success when we didn't. Look at the problems they gave L.A. in the half-court in the Finals. They took Magic right out of a half-court game.
"The one thing we can say about the fast break over the past few years is that, for whatever reason, big-running teams were not big-winning teams. I'm not saying it's going to be a big revolution, but maybe that's going to change a little bit." But not nearly enough to please Westhead, ever the fast-break dreamer.
"The day will come when highly talented guys finally realize that you can run up and down the court with abandon, while also playing some good fundamental basketball," said Westhead. "Coaches will realize it too and on that day even the 24-second clock will become immaterial."
That is Westhead's vision of basketball Utopia, and maybe it will come to pass someday. But knowing NBA coaches, they will probably still be slowing it down in the playoffs.