NEW YORK (AP) — Defense wins championships is one of the oldest clichés in sports.
It’s mostly been true, too.
Now, even coaches who preached defense before look around an NBA where the pace is quicker, the shots come from deeper, and can come to only one conclusion.
“It seems like offense wins,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
That’s what the Brooklyn Nets are looking to prove with an NBA title.
Perhaps no team has ever packed so much offensive punch. Kevin Durant is a four-time NBA scoring champion. James Harden has won three. They’ve both been league MVPs. Kyrie Irving is a perennial All-Star who hit the winning shot to cap the biggest NBA Finals comeback ever.
“You look at Kyrie, Durant, Harden. (Spencer) Dinwiddie’s out, he’s a terrific player. He’s an All-Star-caliber talent,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “So, they’re up there with the best of them.”
Stopping one is possible. Stopping two is doable. Stopping all three the four times it would require to beat Brooklyn in a series is a mighty ask for any team, no matter how well it defends.
The Nets average 121.1 points, 30 more than the league average when Popovich’s Spurs won their first title in 1999. Now, the Cleveland Cavaliers score 104.6 per game, last in the NBA with an average that would have led the league in 2011-12.
“The rules are tilted toward the offense obviously and that makes it a little bit easier for a talented player to have his way,” said Popovich, whose early Spurs won with a methodical style that helped influence rules changes that opened up the game.
“Defense can keep you in games and if you don’t play defense it’s going to be an ugly night. But to actually win the game, offense has become more important than it ever has in the past.”
That’s apparently what Nets general manager Sean Marks, who played and worked under Popovich, realized when he assembled his roster. The Nets favored skill and shooting over size and strength, and hired Steve Nash to coach them. Nash hired Mike D’Antoni as one of his assistants, reuniting the point guard and coach of the Phoenix Suns squads of 15 years ago that were the predecessors of today’s wide-open offenses.
Brooklyn started slowly and had to adjust in January after the blockbuster deal to acquire Harden, but the Nets’ torrid stretch before the All-Star break even without the injured Durant showed they might just have the perfect team for the times.
“I think in our whole league right now, if you look at offensive numbers overall, there’s just possessions where against every team when you’re watching the film and you’ll say, that’s not because it’s bad defense,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said. “There’s just so much skill and offense on the floor for a lot of teams and these guys obviously would be at the top of that.”
That was before the Magic held the Nets to a better-than-respectable 24 points in the first quarter of their Feb. 25 game in Brooklyn. The Nets then poured in 41 in the second quarter on 16-for-22 shooting (72.7%), blowing by the Magic on their way to a 129-92 rout. Harden made five 3-pointers, but so did Landry Shamet and Joe Harris made four, after Clifford noted that it’s not like defenses can focus solely on the three superstars.
“The other part of it is, there’s so much skill around them and they’re playing with such purpose that although you have to double-team some, that’s a tough way to go also,” Clifford said.
The NBA’s top-shooting team will have even more skill after the break, after the Nets (24-13) signed six-time All-Star Blake Griffin.
D’Antoni’s Suns were the first to truly benefit from the rules changes that cracked down on hand-checking, making it tough for defenders to keep top guards from driving past them. Nash led the league in assists for three straight seasons, a quarterback always in command of his offense.
Now that player is Harden, who wasn’t even a point guard until D’Antoni moved him from shooting guard in Houston. Harden is leading the league in assists and averaging 25.5 points, which would top most teams but is good enough for only third on the Nets.
“There are some great players that you can be in exactly the right places, you can have the help in the right places, you can contest, but some of these guys, they take it at you, and they do a legal step-back, they create space and they rise up,” Carlisle said. “I mean, sometimes you’ve got to just tip your hat.
“The difference with (Harden) and a lot of the other guys that we’re talking about is that he’ll do this stuff 30 to 35 feet from the basket.”
Even some of the NBA’s renowned offensive teams, such as Magic Johnson’s Showtime Lakers or the recent dynasty Warriors of Durant and Stephen Curry, had a strong defensive mentality which stood out in the postseason.
And while the Nets have some respected defenders, such as DeAndre Jordan and Bruce Brown, it’s a clear weakness. They surrender 116.1 points per game, fourth-worst in the league, and during an eight-game win streak in February allowed more than that four times.
But with weapons like Durant, Harden and Irving, there’s no backing away from shootouts.
“It is difficult to defend nowadays,” Nash said, “and our team has the luxury of having three guys who can get their own shot.”