Commentary

Battle of the best: Which prevails -- Lakers' offense or Celtics' defense?

Originally Published: June 4, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Kobe BryantBrian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhat happens when you pit the best offense (Lakers) and the league's MVP (Kobe Bryant) up against the best defense (Celtics) and the Defensive Player of the Year (Kevin Garnett)? We'll soon find out.

Call it the immovable object versus the unstoppable force.

Lost in the wave of excitement about the retro NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the L.A. Lakers is the contrast in styles these two teams represent. When the Lakers have the ball, keep your eyes peeled, because it doesn't get any better than this matchup: the best offense in the game against one of the best defenses of all time.

Boston led the league in regular-season defensive efficiency by a large margin at 96.2. Relative to the league, only two teams in the past 35 years were better defensively, the 2003-04 Spurs and the 1992-93 Knicks (see chart).

Though we can't compare the Celtics to any team before the 1973-74 season because the league didn't track turnovers until then, we can consider this team a worthy successor to the Russell-era mantle of defensive dominance. Feisty D allowed the team with the league's 10th-best offense to roar to a league-best 66 wins.

All-Time Defensive Efficiency Leaders, Relative to League*
Team Year Def. Eff. League Avg. Differential
San Antonio 2003-04 92.31 100.84 -8.53
New York 1992-93 96.77 105.07 -8.20
Boston 2007-08 96.16 104.14 -7.98
New York 1993-94 95.85 103.72 -7.83
San Antonio 2004-05 95.80 103.09 -7.29
* - since league began tracking turnovers in 1973-74

Boston has kept up that defensive effort in the postseason. In the playoffs, the Celtics again rank first, narrowly edging out Cleveland at 99.4 and lapping the rest of the competition. Though not quite as dominant as the Celtics' regular-season statistic, this 20-game performance is a reasonable facsimile of the first 82 games.

Meanwhile, out on the other coast, L.A. swept to the top record in the West based largely on the league's third-best regular-season offense. But even that No. 3 ranking understates the Lakers' success.

The Lakers ranked fifth in offensive efficiency on Feb. 5, the day Pau Gasol first donned purple and gold. Then they had a little hiccup in late March, when Gasol missed nine games and all but three minutes of a 10th because of an ankle sprain.

Outside of that, Gasol played in 26 regular-season games for L.A. The team's offensive efficiency mark in those games? A staggering 114.0, which would have led the league by a mile had the Lakers kept that up all year; in fact, had they performed anywhere near that mark for a full season, they would have rivaled the greatest offensive teams in league history.

As with Boston, L.A.'s offensive performance hasn't been quite as jaw-dropping in the playoffs. L.A. is third among playoff teams in offensive efficiency at 109.0, standing a whisker behind Orlando and New Orleans.

[+] EnlargeLamar Odom and Pau Gasol
AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianThe Los Angeles Lakers' offense has been highly efficient since the arrival of Pau Gasol.

Still, the 41 games of the Gasol era have produced very impressive results. Los Angeles has played half a season's worth of games with him in the lineup and has posted an offensive efficiency mark of 112.0, which would have comfortably led the league. (Phoenix was first in the regular season at 111.2.) And 15 of those games have come in the crucible of playoff competition, including five conference finals games against an elite defensive team from San Antonio.

So between Boston's defense and L.A.'s offense, we've got quite a showdown ahead of us. Rarely have two teams had such overwhelming strengths clash.

But it's not the very first time a great offense has met a great defense. Which brings us to these questions: What happens in such impacts? Does the defense win the day? Or does the offensive team's high skill level overwhelm?

Yep, it's time for a history lesson. Let's take a look back in time to see what happened in recent playoff series when great offenses and great defenses clashed and the matchup was at least somewhat even on paper:

San Antonio vs. Phoenix, 2005 Western Conference finals

This is probably the most extreme example of such a matchup to date. The 2004-05 Suns were the fourth-best offensive team of the past 35 years; the Spurs, as the chart above shows, were the fifth-best defensive team. As far as offense versus defense battles go, this was an epic.

Unfortunately, two factors got in the way of a great series. The first factor is that for Games 1 and 2 (two narrow home losses for Phoenix), the Suns didn't have guard Joe Johnson because of a nasty facial injury. His absence somewhat reduced the team's offensive firepower right at the time it faced its greatest test. Second, Phoenix's No. 17 defense was no match for San Antonio's No. 8 offense, and the Spurs layupped their way into the Finals in five games.

Verdict: Win for the defense


L.A. Lakers vs. Detroit, 2004 NBA Finals

This battle pitted a potent Lakers offense against one of the best defensive teams of all time, the 2004 Pistons. Though the Lakers were "only" second in offensive efficiency, that mark came with Shaquille O'Neal missing 15 games, Kobe Bryant missing 17 and Karl Malone missing 42 -- obviously, at full strength they were a force with which to be reckoned. Similarly, Detroit ranked only second in defensive efficiency for the season but was No. 1 with a bullet after its midseason trade for Rasheed Wallace.

This turned into one of the biggest upsets in recent history, as much for the magnitude as the outcome. Nearly every prognosticator said L.A. would roll to the title; instead, the Pistons used their suffocating defense to crush the Lakers in five games.

Though Malone's injury in the Finals certainly played a part, score another for the D.

Verdict: Win for the defense


Dallas vs. San Antonio, 2003 Western Conference finals

The 2002-03 Mavericks were one of the best offensive teams in recent times, featuring Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel. They had tied for the league's best record in the regular season with San Antonio, a team that was the polar opposite -- with Tim Duncan and David Robinson, few teams have ever defended the interior better, and the Spurs easily were the league's top defensive team.

Once again, defense reigned, and once again the offensive team had an excuse -- this time, the knee injury suffered by Nowitzki after the Mavs had stolen Game 1 in San Antonio. With its best player sidelined, Dallas lost all three games on its home court while averaging a meager 85.3 points.

Verdict: Win for the defense


L.A. Lakers vs. San Antonio, 2001 Western Conference finals

The defending-champion Lakers coasted through the 2000-01 regular season before turning it on at the end. Again, they finished "only" second in offensive efficiency, but that was with Kobe missing 14 games, Ron Harper 35 and Derek Fisher a whopping 62. Meanwhile, the Spurs rolled to the West's best record behind a defense that was No. 1 in efficiency, with the Duncan-Robinson duo serving as its cornerstone.

That should have set up an epic battle in the conference finals. Instead, it was one of the most lopsided series in league history. Finally at full strength, L.A. blasted the Spurs in four games by a total of 89 points en route to its second consecutive title. Though San Antonio's inability to score played a role, L.A.'s offense also had the upper hand.

Verdict: Win for the offense


Indiana vs. L.A. Lakers, 2000 NBA Finals

Sure, they had Shaq and Kobe. But believe it or not, L.A.'s first Phil Jackson-led championship team ranked first in defensive efficiency with the younger Shaq patrolling the middle and the likes of Fisher, Harper, Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Brian Shaw on the perimeter.

Meanwhile, it was the guys from the heartland who had the league's top offense -- an efficient mix led by sharpshooters Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose and Rik Smits. And in the Finals, that offense was even better than it was in the regular season, rolling up 106.7 points per game against an L.A. team that had given up just 92.3 for the year.

Nonetheless, the Pacers couldn't contain the Lakers at the other end, and L.A. prevailed in a sneaky-tough six games. But in the offense versus defense battle that's the framework for this story, score it for the O.

Verdict: Win for the offense


Chicago vs. New York, 1993 Eastern Conference finals

The 1992-93 Knicks were, to that point in history, the best defensive team of the post-merger era (see chart), winning 60 games and earning the top seed in the East. With Pat Riley coaching the likes of Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason and current Celtics coach Doc Rivers, it's pretty easy to see why.

In the conference finals, those Knicks ran into a Chicago team that had the league's second-best offense; plus, it had some guy named Michael Jordan whose minutes it could ramp up in the playoffs.

True to form, the Knicks held the Bulls to eight points below their season average. But the Knicks' offense went off the rails and cost them the epic series, even though they won the first two games and held home-court advantage. The Bulls prevailed in six tough games in one of the best series in recent memory, paving the way for the third of Jordan's six championships. Nonetheless, this is another triumph for the D.

Verdict: Win for the defense


Chicago vs. Portland, 1992 NBA Finals

The 1991-92 Bulls won 67 games with a dominating offensive attack led by Mr. Jordan, of course. In the Finals they ran up against a Portland team that also was wickedly talented but did most of its damage at the defensive end, where it finished a close second in defensive efficiency.

Portland's defense did the job, holding Chicago to 104 points per game -- right at the Blazers' season average on D and six below Chicago's. But, as with the Knicks in '93, the Blazers' offense didn't come through. A Blazers team that scored 111.4 points a game in the regular season didn't hit that mark in regulation once, and averaged 96.7 -- nearly 15 below its regular-season average -- for the series.

Verdict: Inconclusive


Boston vs. Detroit, 1988 Eastern Conference finals

The 1987-88 Celtics were the fourth-best offensive team of the past 35 years, helping them roll to 57 wins and, seemingly, another Finals showdown against the Lakers. But the upstart Pistons had other ideas. They had the league's second-best defense, which would help them become the league champion Bad Boys the next two years.

This season was the Pistons' first step, as they knocked out Boston in six -- and in this case, the defense absolutely was the reason. Boston averaged 113.6 points in the season but cleared the century mark just once in six games against Detroit, and needed double overtime to do it. In fact, Detroit gave up nearly nine fewer points a game to the Celtics than it had during the regular season.

Alas, the Pistons couldn't quite get past the league's second-best offense, Los Angeles, in the Finals, losing in seven after dropping the final two games by a combined four points.

Verdict: Win for the defense


Philadelphia vs. Boston and L.A., 1980 Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals

The NBA was basically a three-team league in 1979-80: The Celtics, Lakers and Sixers won 61, 60 and 59 games respectively, but no other team cleared 50. L.A. and Boston won with offense, finishing first and second respectively in offensive efficiency thanks to Magic and Bird, but the Sixers were the opposite -- a defensive juggernaut that ranked first on that end of the floor.

In the playoffs, the Sixers came away with a split. In the conference finals, Philly's D prevailed, absolutely suffocating the top-seeded Celtics. Boston was held nearly 20 points below its season average in the series, even failing once to clear the century mark in an era when reaching 100 points per game was routine.

But they didn't do as well in the Finals against L.A. The Lakers got their numbers, Magic went off in the clinching Game 6, and L.A. had its first of five titles for the decade.

Verdict: One for the defense, one for the offense


Golden State vs. Washington, 1975 NBA Finals

This oldie but goodie was another battle of No. 1s. Washington had the league's No. 1 defense, captained by Wes Unseld, and had just beaten the league's other 60-win team, Boston, in the Eastern Conference finals. All that stood between them and the title were the lowly 48-win Warriors, who had the league's No. 1 offense behind Rick Barry but weren't considered in the Bullets' league. Besides, Washington had just taken out the No. 3 offense in the past round -- this wasn't expected to be much different.

As we all know now, it was much different. Golden State swept the Bullets in four in one of the biggest upsets in league history, though the culprit was more an implosion of Washington's offense than anything the vaunted Warriors attack accomplished.

Verdict: Inconclusive


The One That Could Have Been

There's one other matchup of No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense that nearly came to pass -- 22 years ago, we nearly had exactly what we have in the 2008 Finals.

The 1985-86 Los Angeles Lakers easily were the league's top offense, and their 62 wins led the West. That year's edition of the Boston Celtics sported the league's top defense, and their 67 wins led the entire league. All was set for an epic showdown between the league's past two champions … right up until the part when the Houston Rockets upset the whole apple cart in the Western Conference finals, winning in five games.

So instead, we get the matchup now. There's no Magic and no Bird, but we have Kobe and KG and another gritty Boston team against a flashier bunch from L.A.

And as the above examples show, it seems the Celtics have a decent shot at thwarting L.A.'s attack. The scoreboard on the 11 series shows six for the defense against just three for the offense, with two proving inconclusive. The top-notch defensive team also won six of the 11 series outright.

Of course, that kind of meta-analysis can't account for the smaller variables in any individual series, but it's useful to consider nonetheless. The prevailing opinion has been that this is the Lakers' series to lose, even with Boston's home-court advantage. But if Boston has as much success shutting down the Lakers as its defensively dominant predecessors have had in series against highly ranked offenses, its odds of bringing home a title may be much better than the consensus perceives.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.