SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The Detroit Pistons have put defense back in vogue.
Youngsters at playgrounds all over the United States are learning how to draw offensive fouls, just the way Dennis Rodman does. They're learning defensive nuances from the Bill Laimbeer school of push and shove. They're honing their pickpocket skills, a la Joe Dumars.
Well, that may be stretching the point a bit. But the Pistons, who have won back-to-back championships primarily on the basis of their don't-give-an-inch defense, have certainly made the basketball world take notice.
"Defense is a point of honor with the Pistons," said Bucky Buckwalter, the Portland Trail Blazers vice president of basketball operations. "They like to think they can come out and play it as a personal challenge."
The Blazers know firsthand. Portland matched Detroit's regular-season record of 59-23 last season but lost to the Pistons in five games in the National Basketball Association finals.
The Pistons wasted little time in showing how hard-nosed they can be defensively. In Game 1, they wiped out Portland's 10-point lead in the last six minutes by limiting the Blazers' shot selection and ultimately out-rebounding the league's best rebounding team by eight on their way to a 105-99 victory.
"Most teams in the league play defense the way we do. They double [team] and rotate," said Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey. "But we've been fortunate to have maybe the two best defenders in the league in Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, who can guard people at all different positions."
Mostly because of the Pistons' success, and partly because of the copycat mentality of the NBA, teams are trying to shore up their defensive deficiencies this season, by obtaining a Dumars-type guard (as the Dallas Mavericks did when they acquired Fat Lever during the off-season) or by drafting a big man with a rebounder's mentality (as the Golden State Warriors did when they selected Tyrone Hill in the first round).
The emphasis on defense has reduced scoring in the NBA for five years in a row.
Successful teams routinely held opponents to under 100 points and to 47-percent shooting last season. Not surprisingly, the Pistons topped both categories by holding opponents to an average of 98.3 points and a .447 shooting percentage during the regular season.
Detroit's defensive averages are low partly because of the team's slow-down offensive style, but the Pistons' penchant for defense can't be denied.
All 10 teams that held the opposition to under 47-percent shooting made the playoffs last season.
Portland gave up 107.9 points per game, but that was acceptable, because the Blazers were scoring 114.2 per game and their rotating "help" defense held the competition to a stingy .464 shooting percentage.
In the NBA, where athleticism prevails, it's virtually impossible for one man to guard another one-on-one. Team defense is crucial.
"We're never going to be a great defensive team, because we don't have the personnel like Detroit," Warriors coach Don Nelson said. "The Pistons have great one-on-one defenders. But we're getting better with Timmy Hardaway. Mitch [Richmond] is working hard on his defense, and Rod [Higgins] is a pretty good defender. So that gives us a solid group of guys, and hopefully our team defense will be pretty good."
The Warriors ranked 26th of the 27 teams in points allowed last season with 119.4. Teams shot .478 against them.
A healthy Alton Lister should help the Warriors lower those numbers this season. But the key to good defense is a group of unselfish players who have the savvy to work together as a productive unit.
"Look at the [Los Angeles] Lakers," said Scott Layden, director of player personnel for the Utah Jazz. "The impression is they're all fun and games and show time, but they're underrated defensively. They were the team of the '80s because they played great team defense."
The Jazz has reached the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons and has ranked first or second in the league in defense for two seasons under coach Jerry Sloan, who was a defensive monster at guard during his playing days with the Chicago Bulls.
The Jazz's defensive success has been defined by Sloan and Mark Eaton, their 7-foot-4, 290-pound center, who has been the best shot blocker in the league in four of the past eight seasons. The Jazz also has forwards Karl Malone and Thurl Bailey, both of whom take pride in their defense, unlike many players in the NBA.