BOSTON -- The two most important players on the court weighed a few dozen pounds less than Shaquille O'Neal. This league that used to be the realm of Shaq is being run now by the likes of 6-foot Kyle Lowry and 6-1 Rajon Rondo, the point guards who spent Tuesday night attacking each other like indoor sprinters, back and forth, heat after heat.
When Rondo's Celtics prevailed 97-92 in overtime, it was because Lowry's Rockets had stopped running. "We slowed down a little too much," Lowry said. "We just played too cautious in the end. We should have kept pushing, kept playing them up-tempo."
The Celtics won their 2008 title behind a huge front line of Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and P.J. Brown, and the Rockets were planning to add to their collection of trophies around 7-6 Yao Ming. Now those tall days are gone. Everyone but Garnett has departed to another team or retirement, leaving these two championship franchises to the leadership of undersized guards who were afterthoughts in the 2006 draft.
"I was [No.] 24 -- I'm not going to say I'm great, but I think I do the job well," Lowry said. "Rondo was 21. Look at the guys like that."
There surely are a lot of them. Red Auerbach used to say that an NBA team should always be able to find a useful big man, and in the 1960s, '70s and '80s it was true because basketball was a big man's game and the rules brought out the best in post players.
Now the NBA game is being played on the wing. No traditional low-post player has been voted MVP since Tim Duncan in 2002-03, and six of the last seven awards have gone to a star who led his team in assists.
It's becoming easier to find a point guard because the game is creating playmakers of all types. Jeremy Lin serves as proof that Auerbach's view of big men now applies to little men. This is why I applauded the Knicks' decision to sign Tyson Chandler rather than to hold out in hope of acquiring Chris Paul or Deron Williams, because these days it's easier to find a capable point guard than it is to come up with an agile big man to fill the Knicks' overwhelming need for defensive leadership. Then Jeremy Lin emerged to prove the theory.
Because this has become a league driven by playmakers, you often hear talk of teams wanting to find a point guard high in the draft. It isn't a bad idea. Of the 30 starting point guards in the NBA, nine arrived as top-four picks and all have proved worthy -- Derrick Rose, John Wall, Kyrie Irving (all Nos. 1), Jason Kidd (No. 2), Deron Williams (No. 3), Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Russell Westbrook and Tyreke Evans (Nos. 4).
But you don't need to have an elite draft pick in order to thrive in this new point guard era. Eleven currently ranked playoff teams -- Miami, Orlando, Philadelphia, Indiana, Atlanta, Boston, New York, San Antonio, the Lakers, Denver and Houston -- are managed by starting point guards who were drafted outside the lottery. (That statement should be asterisked, however, because LeBron James obviously runs the point for Miami, where the ostensible point guard, Mario Chalmers, ranks No. 3 in assists behind James and Dwyane Wade.)
Steve Nash won two MVPs as a No. 15 pick. Tony Parker won three championships after going at No. 28, and Rondo won a title and has made the last three All-Star teams from No. 21. Chalmers went No. 34 and Lin was undrafted.
The league is still transitioning to this new era. The Mavericks would not have won the title last June if not for the penetrating play of point guard J.J. Barea, who became a starter midway through the NBA Finals. Otherwise, point-guard play has not been a dominant theme for most of the recent champions. But Westbrook, Rose and James (if we can agree that LeBron is essentially a point guard) are among the playmakers who will be seeking to change that dynamic by ascending over the postseason.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey believes there are as many as 15 top-level point guards, after which "the drop-off is significant." He also thinks the availability of top point guards will keep growing as the league continues to adapt to the abolition of the hand-checking rule on the perimeter that enabled smaller, quicker guards to dominate.
"The big skills I like to see in a point guard -- that obviously the top ones have -- are the ability to break their guy down on the dribble, to get in the paint be disruptive, and then to find shooters from there," Morey said. "I like a point guard that's also a threat [to score] so that the defense is always on their toes, and then I like the point guard who can be disruptive on defense and rebound. It's pretty hard to put all those qualities in one guy."
Lowry and Rondo possess those qualities. Villanova coach Jay Wright once described Lowry as the smartest player he'd ever coached. He was one of four starting guards who drove Villanova to the Elite Eight in 2006, months before the Grizzlies drafted him near the bottom of the first round. Lowry was the backup to Conley in Memphis, and after the Rockets traded for him in 2009, he was the backup to Aaron Brooks. When Brooks was injured last season, Lowry proved he should be the starter and the Rockets dealt Brooks to Phoenix. By then Lowry had improved his jump shot to become the scoring threat Morey was seeking: Lowry is making a career-best 38.5 percent of his threes this season.
"Shooting, definitely," Lowry said of his improvements since his rookie year. "And understanding the game and pace, and understanding where my guys are going to be and knowing how to get everyone involved. The game has slowed down tremendously from my rookie year for me mentally, and that's helped me grow as a player."
Lowry is built like a running back and that's how he plays, exercising a physical presence at both ends of the floor. Rondo looks and plays like the former quarterback he was in high school, cutting inside defenders to run the option and kick out passes to his teammates. In the third quarter Tuesday, there were four point guards on the floor, as Rondo was joined by Keyon Dooling and Lowry by his backup Goran Dragic, who would drain an overtime-forcing jumper from the corner after Rondo bobbled a breakaway layup at the other end.
"It's going to be a tough position at the point guard every night in this league," Rondo said. "Night in, night out, it's going to be a good guard you have to face and try to contain them as much as possible."
Lin isn't a phenomenon so much as he is a sensational example of an extended trend. There will be more surprises to come, in much the same way as the emergences of Rondo and Lowry created surprises of their own. "Every point guard in the league has confidence in himself," Lowry said. "When someone says, 'Hey, look, I want you to be this guy,' I don't think any point guard in the league wants to let them down."
An NBA point guard can't afford to let his team down. If he does, there will be two others on the bench or elsewhere pushing to seize his place.