A Familiar Theme With an Unfamiliar Leader
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BOSTON, June 17, 2008 -- Defense.

They say it wins championships.

Of course, that's a simplistic view of basketball and sports in general, because preventing your opponent from scoring isn't enough when you're not scoring yourself.

But I'm going to say it right here: In basketball, defense is more important than offense. Defense can be counted on. Offense cannot. And defense, forcing turnovers, forcing missed shots, sparking your transition game, can get your offense going when your offense can't do it for itself.

And from start to finish this season, from the beginning of October to the end of June, the Boston Celtics have been about defense. And it's no coincidence that the Boston Celtics are the 2008 NBA champions.

Be honest. When the Celtics acquired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett last summer, the idea of them being the best defensive team in the league never crossed your mind. Sure, you knew they would be good and you maybe thought they had a chance at the NBA championship, but you didn't think it would be because of their D.

But the defense was all Doc Rivers talked about when he first met with his three All-Stars on July 31 of last year, the day Kevin Garnett was introduced as the newest Celtic.

"Right after the big press conference," Rivers explained before Game 4 of the Finals, "we sat in the back and we talked, had a long talk, and the only thing I brought up was defense."

The players, led by Garnett, bought in. And the rest is history.

So, it should be no surprise that Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals, the game that brought championship No. 17 to Boston, was fueled by defense.

Wait a minute, you say. They Celtics scored 131 points tonight, 12 more than they had scored in any other game this season. It was an offensive deluge.

Ah yes, but think back to the first timeout of the first quarter. The Celtics were shooting 3-for-14 from the field, but they were down just one, because their defense did what it does, holding the Lakers scoreless on six straight possessions early on to keep the game tight.

That defense was sparked by an unlikely leader. It was less than 48 hours earlier that Doc Rivers made the following assessment of his starting point guard: "[Rajon] Rondo is just not playing well right now."

That was after Game 5, where Rondo played less than 15 minutes. When the Celtics had made their big comeback in Game 4, Rondo was on the sideline. Veterans Eddie House and Sam Cassell were proving to be more reliable point guards than the kid from Kentucky.

But in Game 6, Rondo's performance symbolized that of his team. Early on, Rondo was unsure of himself offensively, shooting 1-for-6 from the field in the first quarter, as hesitant as he has been all series. But he led the defensive activity, poaching on the post and nabbing four steals in the period.

"I thought for the most part," Garnett said after the game, "Rondo missed shots, like anybody else would, but that ain't where our heart is. Our heart is with our defense."

While the Lakers ignored Rondo's offense, he totally disrupted them with his defense. And eventually, his defensive energy led to offensive confidence. He pushed the ball on the break, sliced through the Lakers' defense in the halfcourt, found open shooters on the perimeter and even knocked down a couple of open jumpers himself. And as his offense blossomed, his defense remained a constant.

"I try to let my defense dictate my offense," Rondo said afterward, "instead of vice versa."

The result was the game of his life: 21 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and six steals. It's exactly the type of line that Rajon Rondo can eventually produce regularly. And to do it in Game 6 of the Finals just proves that. Paul Pierce was clearly the MVP of the series, but Rondo was the MVP of the clincher.

"Rondo was the star," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He was the guy out there that made the plays, got the steals, pushed their offense into high drive and created havoc for us."

And Rivers, critical after Game 5, was effusive with his praise after Game 6: "I was so proud of Rajon Rondo because, you know, he was really struggling, and to fight his way through that tonight and to play with the energy and the toughness that he played with tonight was absolutely fantastic. I think that almost symbolized our year in a nutshell."

Rondo led the way, but the defensive energy permeated the entire roster. They smothered, stifled, stymied and suffocated the Lakers completely. After the first quarter, L.A. never had a chance.

The Celtics were up 31 points midway through the third period, and there was Paul Pierce all in Kobe Bryant's shirt to force a missed 18-footer. A possession later, there was Kevin Garnett forcing a jump ball when Pau Gasol had good position down low. Two possessions after that, there was Lamar Odom getting stopped in the lane with nowhere to pass to and giving it up to Pierce.

There would be no Laker comeback on this night. The Celtic defense never allowed them to get any kind of rhythm going.

"The defense is our backbone," Garnett said after the game. "When you see us beat teams and beat teams bad it's because we play defense for 48 minutes and we put our offensive game together to go with it."

The Lakers had 19 turnovers in the game, and 18 of them were steals by the Celtics. The only other turnover took place when Jordan Farmar dribbled the ball out of bounds late in the first quarter. That tells you just how active Boston was defensively. They took away passing lanes and lanes to the basket. Nothing came easy for the Lakers.

"We talked about it this morning in shootaround," Rivers said, "that it was going to be our defense that was going to win the world championship for us, or be our defense that would lose one."

You see? Defense does win championships. The Boston Celtics have proven just that.

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