Defensive play is losing its offensive reputation

ON THE NBA

December 14, 1993|By JERRY BEMBRY

For the Seattle SuperSonics, it's often referred to as "The Glove," in which a player will grasp one hand around the opposite wrist, challenging his teammates to make a defensive stop.

For the Houston Rockets, the philosophy is centered on aggressive trapping on the perimeter, with the knowledge that there's a great shot-blocking center backing you up.

And for the New York Knicks, it's based on aggressiveness and intimidation that warn opponents: Attack the basket at your own risk.

Defense. It's suddenly the trend in the NBA and, unlike in the past, it's not an aspect of the game that gets played only in the fourth quarter.

Going into last night's games there were 11 teams in the league that were limiting opponents to fewer than 100 points a game, something that only three teams accomplished last season. In a league where the Denver Nuggets once allowed 130.8 points a (( game (1990-91) and where 10 years ago yesterday the Detroit Pistons defeated the Nuggets, 186-184, in triple overtime, defensive attitudes have come full circle. Twenty-three of the NBA's 27 teams are allowing fewer points this season than last.

"It used to be you wanted to rest on defense so you can be stronger on the other end of the court," said Utah Jazz forward Tom Chambers. "Now you expend more energy on the defensive end, and then you have to go on offense and you run your plays. By that time you're tired, and that wasn't always the case."

It wasn't the case last season with the Rockets, who allowed more than 130 points in back-to-back games during their mediocre start (14-16). But the Rockets wound up with a 55-27 record and were just one game away from the NBA Finals.

"We committed to defense and finished 41-11 last year," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich, whose team is allowing 92.6 points a game -- down 7.3 points from a year ago. "As long as we understand who we are and how we win -- defense -- people are going to have to play a different game against us. Our guys take pride in our defense. Our work ethic is incredible."

And it could be that the Rockets and other Western Conference teams have simply tired of Eastern Conference teams taking the last five NBA titles.

Although they relied on the clutch play of Michael Jordan in their three championship seasons, the Chicago Bulls were a defensive-minded team that limited opponents to fewer than 100 points in two of those seasons. When the Pistons won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990, they led the league in defense one season and ranked second the other.

"I really think the Bulls and the Detroit Pistons started the trend," said Seattle guard Kendall Gill. "When the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics were winning titles it was basically 'show time' up and down the court. But now everybody is realizing that defense wins games for you."

A factor could be the development of advance scouting over the years. Often, defensive players know exactly what's going to be run as soon as their opponents call a play.

"The combination of advance scouting and video enhances us," said Seattle coach George Karl. "So much of the confidence of the game comes from that end of the court. I think more players are buying into it."

A bunch of duds

Could it be that the defensive numbers are up because NBA players aren't that good? These five players are vying for my first annual Chris Dudley Award, given to a team regular with the worst shooting percentage (Dudley was shooting 7.7 percent before a broken foot forced him out of the Portland Trail Blazers' lineup).

Players needed at least 10 games, and an average of 15 minutes a game, to qualify. All percentages are through Sunday:

* 1. Greg Anthony, New York Knicks -- 29.9 percent.

* 2. Dwayne Schintzius, New Jersey Nets -- 32.7 percent.

* 3. Mike Brown, Minnesota Timberwolves -- 33.3 percent.

* 4. Shawn Bradley, Philadelphia 76ers -- 34.3 percent.

* 5. Lee Mayberry, Milwaukee Bucks -- 34.8 percent.

Johnson has a point

It's no surprise that Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson is averaging 22.1 points, the highest for a point guard. Or that he's shooting 51.6 percent (career best). Or that his 9.5 assists a game ranks eighth in the league, or his 2.0 steals per game ranks 14th.

Johnson is trying to make a statement.

He says he won't campaign to replace the injured Tim Hardaway on Dream Team II, which will represent the United States in the World Championships, Aug. 4-14, in Toronto. He simply wants the selection committee to acknowledge his accomplishments.

"I just want my play to speak for itself," Johnson said. "People vote, select and have all kinds of systems that I don't agree on. But if they want to compare statistics, I think mine will stack up as well as anyone else's."

Johnson has a point. Maybe Utah's John Stockton is better, but he already has a gold medal from the 1992 Olympics. The Cleveland Cavaliers' Mark Price is already on the team. Kenny Anderson is having an All-Star season with the New Jersey Nets (18.4 points, 9.4 assists), but he hasn't produced as long as Johnson has.

"If there's a better point guard in the game," teammate Danny Ainge said, "I haven't seen him."

L Neither has anyone else. It's time to give Johnson the ball.

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