If the old adage that defense wins championships is true, it appears after the first weekend of the playoffs that four teams are on a collision course to reach the NBA's versionof the Final Four.
A lot can happen over the next month or so with injuries and momentum, but the way the Spurs, Timberwolves, Pacers and Pistons are lockingteams up, it's hard to imagine any of them not competing in thein the conferencefinals.
The Detroit Pistons in particular are playing some of the most suffocating defense the league ever has seen.This is the type of team Larry Brown loves – quick, strong, versatile and attacking – and he has them shutting people down at one end and sharing the ball at the other.
The Milwaukee Bucks barely got the ball over halfcourt in Game 1 as Detroit played a college-style "run and jump" defense, creating havoc everywhere. The Pistons are able to pressure the ball for 48 minutes because of their great speed, quickness and depth. Their players get enough rest to maintain the intensity throughout the game.
Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace provide such great shot blocking and range that Detroit's perimeter players can gamble, double-team in the backcourtand play the passing lanes. And when they bring Lindsey Hunter and Mike James off the bench, the pressure increases. Hunter isone of the best on-the-ball backcourt defenders in the league, and James is not far behind.
I felt sorry for the Bucks' point guards in Game 1 and for anyone else who has to play these guys in the playoffs. They're that good.
The Indiana Pacers are no defensive slouches themselves. Ron Artest will be named the NBA's defensive player of the year on Tuesday (although he's suspended and won't play in Game 2 against Boston), and his physical style of play sets the tone for Indiana. Jeff Foster and Jermaine O'Neal provide great basket support for their teammates, who have gotten really comfortable with Rick Carlisle's defensive schemes.
They front the post, making it difficult for the opponent to enter the ball inside, and they're so quick with their weakside help that over-the-top passes are very difficult. The Pacers don't have the ability to pressure the ball in the backcourt like Detroit does, but they're very tough as it is. Boston and either New Orleans or Miami in the next round will have a very difficult time with Indiana.
In the West, the San Antonio Spurs are clamping down on the Memphis Grizzlies like they have been shutting down teams for years. San Antonio combines a great defensive scheme – forcing offenses to drive baseline, where Tim Duncan and Rasho Nesterovic await – with a phenomenal individual defender in Bruce Bowen. He is the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and he makes life miserable for the opponent'smost potentwing players. And with Hedo Turkoglu, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker defending well too, this is a tough team to score against.
The Grizzlies went almost 11 minutes of the second half without a basket on Monday in Game 2. It's the ability to shut teams down for extended minutes that wins playoff games, and that's what the Spurs do.
On the other side of the West bracket, the Minnesota Timberwolves are playing a similar style. Kevin Garnett is an amazing all-around player, and he, Ervin Johnson and Michael Olowokandi are doing a great job of guarding the basket with their long arms and shot-blocking ability.
Trenton Hassell has become the Timberwolves' version of Bowen, tracking the opponent's best player and staying with him relentlessly. Sam Cassell was the offensive hero of Game 1 against Denver, but it was Hassell who made life difficult for Carmelo Anthony. He pestered him all over the floor, and when Anthony did get past him, the long arms of Garnett and company were there waiting.
This Timberwolves team is different from those in the past for a number of reasons – Cassell, Sprewell and depth, to namea few. But the biggest difference is their terrific defense. They're for real, and they're primed for a deep run this season.