The Breaks Of the Game

IS THE OLD-FASHIONED FAST BREAK AN ENDANGERED SPECIES, OR IS IT JUST IN HIBERNATION?
November 11, 1991

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.

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.

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.

PHOTOBILL SMITHKeeping Michael Jordan (right) in check doesn't always stop the Bulls' break. PHOTOHY PESKINThough of different eras, the Celtics of Cousy (with ball)... PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS...and Magic's Lakers shared one mentality: run, run, run. PHOTOBRIAN DRAKEThe Pacers (above, in blue) and the Sonics could make some big moves this season if they catch a few good breaks. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above.]
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Eagle (-2)
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