Forget what you’ve always been told about defense and let the waves of superhuman NBA scoring performances wash over you.
The NBA right now feels like a barrage of mixtapes.
The regular season is 82 games long. Players and their teams have to navigate back-to-backs, long flights, and Rodeo Road Trips. Hotel rooms become home. Fine-tuning one’s skills and shoring up one’s weaknesses in the midst of such a turbulent travel schedule requires the use of an opponent’s facilities. Sometimes those surroundings are unwelcoming, and ladders must be thrown. Keeping up with it all as a fan requires more eyes and ears and hours than what is currently available to a life lived on this planet. And keeping up with it as a player seems almost as unfathomable. The best player in the league appears up for debate on any given night, and the hats tossed in the ring are different almost every single night.
Luka puts up a triple-double highlighted by 60 points and a miracle minute to push overtime against the New York Knicks, but two games before that effort he posted 50 against the Houston Rockets and two games after New York he posted 51 against the San Antonio Spurs with a bunch of 30-to-40-point efforts sprinkled in for good measure.
Donovan Mitchell kicked off the New Year with an absurdist response to Luka’s 60 by dropping 71 on the Chicago Bulls. That same night Klay Thompson posted 54 points in a West Coast game against the Atlanta Hawks.
The notion of defense seems to have been ethered with the combined points per game average between teams hitting heights not seen since 1985. While critics might complain about travels and a lack of defense, many have long rooted for this latest version of NBA Jam to be rendered into a flesh-and-blood reality. Did you see where Kyrie started to track that ball for a putback dunk against San Antonio? It was as if a stretch of red yarn led him across a corkboard to the scene of the crime before the conspiracy could unfold.
Then there’s Giannis stringing together three straight games over 40, including 55 in a win against the Washington Wizards, while LeBron has recently added to his career totals with 47 and 43-point efforts. He’s not limping past Kareem – he’s sprinting.
This is like getting a Sgt. Pepper’s response to Pet Sounds almost every single night. Play the tapes backward and all you hear is defense is dead. But that death isn’t due necessarily to lack of effort so much as guarding players like LeBron and Giannis and Kevin Durant has always been unfair, just as it was unfair to guard all their prior antecedents. Then, add into the mix the players who maybe have no overwhelming physical stature or reach, but who have been given an endless supply of YouTube blueprints from which to study and build their skill sets. Then, think about the fact that these same blueprints have also been available to a generation of coaches across the country and around the globe. The guild secrets are largely out in the open.
NBA defense is fighting a losing battle against unguardable offense
How does defensive effort keep up with idiosyncrasies rendered algorithmic? How does one consistently scheme against a never-ending barrage of dagger 3s? The answer has been to join in the attack.
Duels are constructed to be mano y mano, and basketball is often geared to think in the construct of rivalries and one-on-one matchups. Think of Bill Russell versus Wilt Chamberlain. Think of the Boston Celtics versus the Los Angeles Lakers, not the Boston Celtics versus the Lakers and Rockets, or the Pistons and 76ers or Hawks. Think of Shaq versus Kobe, not Shaq and Kobe versus the Pacers and Trail Blazers and Spurs and Kings. Think of San Antonio versus Phoenix or San Antonio versus Dallas, but not both. And what about the Heat? This idea probably needs elaboration, but something this season forces viewers to do is to not watch the game like a boxing match.
The league is not one or two players vying for MVP. The league does not have a plethora of dominant teams. What the league has is a knot of highly competitive teams that cannot separate from one another in the standings. One week Dallas is underwhelming. Then they ride a win streak and look like they could be back in the Western Conference Finals. Write off Golden State. Then they win a few in a row. Is it too early to write off the Brooklyn Nets? Is it too early to count on the Memphis Grizzlies? What to do with the Phoenix Suns? Be careful how you invest your predictions; volatility is the only consistent return. The Boston Celtics are pretty damn good, though.
But this season is less of a promoted fight than a round of chaos. Golf is not often viewed as a chaotic sport. No one gets bloody. The shirts are collared. Preppy stereotypes persist for a reason. But golf is chaotic in terms of how the competition unfolds. No one can stop their opponent by blocking a shot or snatching the ball from a tee. The game comes down to making shots, and the course is left to defend itself. That’s how the current NBA season feels. A roar from Amen Corner ignites the crowd watching under a canopy of pine, and that sound, which, in the moment, is nothing more than an awed human response, challenges some other shot maker to go for broke because this is Sunday and how many chances are there to wear a green jacket. Apparently, in the NBA, there are 82, and this season is all about putting up red on the scoreboard for all to see and all to hear. Maybe that cheapens it. But there’s a difference between living with the pageantry of Awards season and being swept away in the spontaneity of a forest fire.
Here are the fifty-point games from this season: Giannis (55), Mitchell (71), Thompson (54), Luka (51, 60, 50), Pascal Siakam (52), Devin Booker (58, 51), Joel Embiid (53, 59), Anthony Davis (55), Stephen Curry (50), Darius Garland (51).
This league on fire should be built up and discussed like a great home run race, only there is no clear-cut finish line. No one’s chasing Roger Maris, are they? The 61 of basketball is Wilt’s 100 – and that’s a black-and-white impossibility, right? No one can catch that, can they?
When Kevin Love tweeted his favorite moments in Cleveland the night his teammate Donovan Mitchell went for 71, he included the night he scored 32 in a quarter against Portland. Multiply that by four. Is anyone doing that?
Enjoy finding out. Enjoy the waiting. Embrace the rapture. It’s here.
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