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The story of basketball, in defense

The other day I pointed out the obvious, saying that when people tell the story of a basketball game, they usually talk about offense.

Which is fine, if you don't mind ignoring half the game.

So I issued a challenge to writers to tell the story of an NBA game without focusing on offense. It's not that such a story would be the perfect way to capture basketball. It's that there are hundreds of thousands of stories out there ignoring defense, and it wouldn't be a bad thing to have a few that swing the other way for a change. Plus, defense is hard to write about, so it's a fun thing to try. (It's also, let's be honest, fun to issue a challenge under any circumstances.) I also can't shake the feeling that focusing on defense is a powerful way for writers and readers alike to quickly gain a more nuanced view of the game. Read the blog NBA Playbook, for instance, and you'll see what I mean.

Rob Peterson of AOL Fanhouse took up my challenge. And succeeded. Hats off to him.

A lot of the entrants have read like sidebars. "Let's focus on defense for a change," kind of things, instead of actually attempting to tell the story of the game. But Peterson's story isn't like that. Honestly, give this post a read. It's a sincere re-cap of a game -- it happens to be Tuesday night's Game 5 between the Spurs and Mavericks. It's rich with details about how Rick Carlisle came to start Brendan Haywood, what Haywood did on the floor to slow Tim Duncan, and what Gregg Popovich did about that.

It was also, in a show-off move, written on deadline.

Peterson found the assignment tough. He e-mails:

It was weird to write from a "don't mention scoring" edict, especially on deadline. Because certain things are quantifiable -- such as points, rebounds, assists, etc. -- it's easy to point to those things as a reason as to why a team won. After all, it is, at the heart, the core of basketball -- put the ball into the basket.

Quantifying defense is another story. You can do blocks, steals and points per 100 possessions. But for other new hoops-metric-y things, unless you have a spreadsheet ready, a writer may be out of luck. And then there are so many subjective pieces to defense -- did the guy close out quickly, how was the show on the pick-and-roll -- that teams grade guys the day after someone pores through the game on DVD. (Synergy!)

That, and sometimes coaches won't talk about it when asked. Coaches don't say: "Well, I thought Haywood got into Timmy's haunches pretty well tonight, threw him off balance, hounded him and maybe got away with a few things." They're not gonna, not because they don't know, but because of a combination of truculence and secrecy.

Peterson's right that it's hard and fairly thankless to write about defense. Which makes it just like playing defense. But they're also both important, which is why I'm thrilled so many made the effort.

For instance, you'll understand Tuesday night's Thunder loss to the Lakers better after reading the work of Josh at Waiting for Groza and Devin Ugland at Five Tool Sports.

David Murphy, writing at TheAssociationNation did a job comparable to Peterson's, and he had the bonus of writing about the Magic and Bobcats -- among the most defensive of matchups imaginable. That's the same series that attracted jpalumbo at the Double Dribble blog. The man put in his work, and turned out a rich and detailed defensive analysis. That series also attracted the blogger H.O.S.S. at Jordan Pushed off.

DT of the blog Coast 2 Coast Ball saw defense as the story of Portland's blowout Game 5 loss to the Suns. And as I mentioned in the bullets the other day, the commenter known around the NBA blogosphere as "Kev" has been writing about defense in great detail for some time and even has his own scoring system. I linked to some of his posts the other day, but there are many others.

Honestly, this project has paid off handsomely already. It's fantastic to see all these writers noticing and writing about defense. The way this project is headed, we all might get a lot smarter about how we watch hoops.