As loyal subjects of the here and now, we’ve been invited to marvel at another ridiculous stat line from Rajon Rondo and judge NBA playoff potential based on a team’s level of point-guard play. When you can get 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists from this spot — as the Boston Celtics did in Sunday’s series-evening, Game 4 victory over the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers — it’s difficult to imagine another position registering an impact that’s even close. Expanding our examination of the league and its playoff triumphs, we see tremendous point-guard play for the Phoenix Suns, whose backup knocked in 23 points during the fourth quarter of a Game 3 win over the San Antonio Spurs.
Our roll call seems pretty remarkable.
Deron Williams, looking very much like the NBA’s class at the position, pushed the Utah Jazz past the Denver Nuggets in Round 1. George Hill helped the Spurs end the season for the second-seeded Dallas Mavericks, who received less-than-sparkling play from veteran playmaker Jason Kidd. And with center Dwight Howard establishing new standards of frequent fouling, point guard Jameer Nelson gunned the Orlando Magic to a sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats.
Now that we’ve witnessed so much high-level play at point guard, it might be easy to anticipate eventual doom for teams forced to settle for anything less.
But it’s not all that tricky to take a deep breath and remember how the Los Angeles Lakers were able to snag the O’Brien Trophy last year with the point guard position occupied by a veteran who really doesn’t qualify as a card-carrying member of the point-guard fraternity. As Rondo steers the Cs toward an opportunity to knock off the Cavaliers, Derek Fisher continues bagging crucial shots in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense and using his veteran chops to make things a bit tricky for the likes of Williams.
So, how can a team (and system) that doesn’t even subscribe to established point guard protocol continue to flourish? Well, aside from the triangle’s departure from what passes for NBA offense, the Lakers demonstrate that winning an NBA championship requires efficiency at both ends of the floor. How this is accomplished — in terms of positional definition of personnel — is much less important than scoring and defending in a consistent manner. For Jackson and his 10 championship rings, the presence of two superstar shooting guards and two dominating men (let’s include Pau Gasol) can work wonders when these players are surrounded by role players who play within the system. The current Lakers crew relies on need-to-have heroics from Kobe Bryant and unmatched length from its post players. With relatively little need for draw-and-kick or ball-screen tactics, Fisher can concentrate on making opportunity jump shots, attempting to stay in front of yet another young jet on defense and mixing in a few timely flops.
When most of the league relies on screen-roll sets and drive-and-kick maneuvers, the point guard usually is deployed as the primary ballhandler and has the task of making wise decisions. The Lakers use fewer ball screens or penetrate-and-dish schemes than most teams, and Bryant frequently has the ball when they do. Without full-court pressure and multiple zone defenses to navigate (like college PGs deal with), an NBA team can survive with players who can simply initiate an offense, make an open shot and play credible defense.
In the Lakers’ 3-0 run against the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference’s second round, Fisher — with considerable help from L.A.’s legion of rim protectors — has limited Williams to 39-percent shooting from the field. This has occurred immediately after D-Will’s eruption against Denver motivated many educated observers to declare him the gold standard for the position.
If the Lakers can close out Utah, Fisher will be obliged to put his experience against another crafty veteran in Steve Nash. And while Phoenix should enjoy the statistical edge at the point guard spot, the series will be won or lost based on how the Suns deal with the Lakers’ towering front line.
At all levels of basketball, having a stellar point guard inspires witnesses to declare such a team capable of weathering most strategical storms. A point guard, it has been decided, is a coach on the floor. But the two teams entering the postseason as favorites to win their respective conferences — the Lakers and Cavaliers — rolled to regular-season glory without traditional play at the lead-guard spot. It should be noted that Cleveland’s Mo Williams certainly has the ball skills necessary to satisfy a point guard definition, but prefers shooting jumpers to creating opportunities off the dribble.
This has worked pretty well, of course, because the Cavaliers employ LeBron James, the two-time league MVP and perhaps the greatest dribble-drive wrecker of defenses the NBA has ever known. So, with James given the responsibility of using most Cavalier ball screens or creating in drive-and-kick situations, Cleveland generally has no issue with Mo at point guard. All that’s required is his ability to defend the position. Unfortunately, his failure to contain Rondo has forced Cavs coach Mike Brown to use two-guard Anthony Parker against Rondo and instruct him to go so far under screens that the Celtics’ point guard needs a telescope to see him. This defensive switch requires Williams to defend Boston two-guard Ray Allen, who’s had little trouble generating shots against the shorter Cavalier point guard.
If Cleveland survives Boston, Brown next will have to figure out how to slow down Nelson, who isn’t as slippery off the dribble as Rondo, but is a much deadlier shooter. Nelson, who averaged a dozen points per game during the regular season, doubled that in four games against Charlotte. He’s providing 17 per game in three victories over the Atlanta Hawks, who — for the record — are receiving little in terms of penetration on offense and stopping penetration on defense from point guard Mike Bibby.
By the way, if Boston knocks off Cleveland, the Eastern Conference final will feature quite a showdown co-starring Rondo and Nelson.
Anyway, this seeming golden age of point guards could provide some compelling storylines as the playoffs roll along.
But if the Lakers and Cavaliers manage to reach the Finals, we — once again — will finish a season without one of the league’s superstar PGs riding off with a championship ring.
Will that tell us that point-guard play is overrated? Will we be provoked into believing that winning a title requires suiting up a player as great as James or Bryant? Will it mean great size along the baseline is needed to propel a team to ultimate victory?
Actually, all we really need to know is championships almost always are won by great players making great plays.
And that may be the only point that really matters.