Following the defeat of the Warriors by the New Orleans Hornets, Warriors coach, Keith Smart, was quoted as saying, "The NBA takes two things, effort and toughness. If you don't show any of that against the good teams, they're going to force their will [on you]."
Smart could just as well have been talking about any of the sub 500 teams in the NBA.
Effort and toughness - call it ET. Play around with these letters and you can create a number of different possibilities: The effort of toughness; the toughness of effort. Without toughness, effort breaks down eventually. Without effort, toughness devolves into a series of on-court muggings and endless trips to the foul line. Most teams put out some sort of effort. But only a few teams put out effort consistently. And only the elite teams put out ET consistently.
In my mind ET is required as much on offense as it is on defense. ET is required of coaches and coaching staff as much as it is of players - I mean all players from starters to every single sub. And not to belabor the point, for GM's as well as owners. For the purposes of this blog, however, let's consider it as it applies to defense only.
There are only two teams so far this season that are playing defense with ET consistently: The Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs. They do it because their coaches demand it. They do it because their veteran players demand it. If a team's vet starters don't understand what it takes to play with ET, the team has a problem, and management better find some who do.
How do you recognize teams who play with ET?
It's not too darn hard. You know the old saying: If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, etc. The minute a team engages another team playing with ET, they know they're in for a physical struggle all night, not just for a quarter or even for three quarters.
I hear the word "swagger" used a lot these days by the pundits. Though I'm not crazy about the word, I'll settle for it to make a point. Swagger represents a condition of the mind, that will not allow an offensive player to get an advantage. A player who plays defense with ET plays with an offense-mind-set. Attack! Don't wait for the offensive player to dictate the play. Attack! It requires will-power and a stubborn desire to win.
Allow me to create a scenario that describes "swagger."
When I was growing up in San Francisco, there were times I found myself in some of the rougher neighborhoods of my city. I learned that when certain groups of guys were approaching me, I needed to make a decision. Did I cross to the other side of the street or did I keep walking?
In the day-to-day of life, discrection is (and was for me) always the better part of valor, but in the NBA, you can't cross the street. You MUST keep on walking. When a tough team approaches, you can't back off.
Not an easy thing to do.
I suspect most sub-500 teams when they see Garnett, Pierce, Perkins, Shaq, and Big Baby approaching, might find themselves mentally jaywalking across rush hour traffic to get out of their way. That goes for the Spurs as well. And the ref hasn't even thrown the ball up yet.
On the other hand, imagine one of the weaker teams in the NBA approaching you down that metaphorical street (Read basketball court). Ask yourself if there is someone leading the group that makes you nervous? Ask yourself, how many guys on the team have the swagger? Which of the players on any of those weaker NBA teams is going to grab you by the shirt and shake you silly for getting in the way? Ask yourself if the players are going to draw the defensive line in the sand and dare the opposing offense to cross it?
As long as they can't or won't, they'll never win big. Never! You're right, Coach Smart, ET is where it's at in the NBA. It always has been.
I couldn't find a poem about playing D. I guess I'll try writing one myself. In the meantime I offer a piece of prose from John Edgar Wideman's wonderful memoir Hooproots about Ed Fleming, a player from Wideman's Pittsburgh neighborhood who played in the NBA.
"Fleming was six-foot-three forward, an inside player his entire college and professional career. The sort of smart banger, hustler, who contests every free ball. Persistent, fearless, he picks up the loose change most players treat as below their notice, chump change floating around at unspectacular moments in a game. He earns small victories in pitched skirmishes peripheral to the main action, battles unrecorded on stat sheets or in scorebooks, relentless because he understands that the little stuff accumulates and determines who wins or loses close games, who winds up winning championships."
What my musings are all about...
Blogging might well be the 21st century's form of journaling. As a writing teacher, I have always advised my students to keep a daily journal as a way of organizing their thoughts for future writing projects, a discipline I have unfortunately never consistently practiced myself. By blogging, I might finally be able to follow my own good advice.
The difference between journaling and blogging is that the blogger opens his or her writing to the public, something journal- writers are usually reluctant to do. I am not so reticent.
The trick for me will be to avoid cluttering the internet with more blather, something none of us need more of. If I stick to subjects I know: sports and literature, I believe I can avoid that pitfall. I can't promise that I'll not stray from time to time to comment on ancillary subjects, but I will make every attempt to be interesting and perhaps even insightful.