Shoot, go ahead, be offensive

NBA: Rule changes designed to provide fans with more offense seem to be working, as scoring has increased more than six points per game.

February 11, 2000

Of all the players in the NBA, Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers and Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers seemed to be the two whose games would be most affected by the rule changes implemented before the season.

Some believed Iverson would be allowed to score at will against defenses unable to lay a hand check on him. Others figured O'Neal would be a bit more encumbered by defenses now allowed to double-team down in the post on the strong side.

As the NBA heads into its All-Star Game on Sunday in Oakland, Calif., Iverson and O'Neal are its two leading scorers. But some teams have been able to stop Iverson -- witness his 14-point performance Monday against the Indiana Pacers -- and most have not been able to shut down O'Neal.

"I don't think the rules are helping me any," Iverson said in Philadelphia on Sunday, after laying a 50-point game on the road-weary, defense-wary Sacramento Kings.

But rules that were designed to open up the game and make it more fan-friendly are working. Scoring has increased more than six points a game -- teams are now averaging 97.8 points per game, as opposed to 91.6 last season. Seven teams are averaging more than 100 points, compared with one team, the Kings, last season.

Iverson is not alone in his thinking. In fact, many players and coaches say the games are not being called much differently from past seasons. If anything, it is being played differently, the result of referees blowing their whistles to excess during preseason and early season games.

"A lot depends on the game and the group of officials you get," said Kings coach Rick Adelman, whose team ranks first in scoring but last in defense. "Some nights they call everything, and some nights they let a lot go. But I don't think things have changed that much from last season."

Said Pacers guard Mark Jackson: "By the time the playoffs start, they'll be calling it the same way, and we'll be playing it the same way."

Rod Thorn disagrees. As the NBA's vice president for operations and part of the committee that put together the new rules, Thorn said players and coaches have a different mind-set.

"It's definitely a less-physical game," Thorn said. "Players have adapted. There's less grabbing, less holding. What we tried to do is get more movement and make it a quicker-paced game, not have so much one-on-one isolation. We still have a lot of one-on-one, but we also have more fast breaks."

Jackson was aware that league officials had him in mind when they put in a five-second rule that prevented players from posting up too long, particularly guards who dribbled in while they positioned themselves against some of their smaller counterparts.

So Jackson merely changed his method of attacking the basket.

"I still post up, but when I get the ball down, I catch it and shoot it," he said recently.

Early on, the rule changes made a major difference in the way the Miami Heat played. But after coming out with a running game reminiscent of the `Showtime' style employed in Los Angeles when Heat coach Pat Riley was the Lakers' coach, Miami reverted to more of a halfcourt game centered around Alonzo Mourning.

The reason: injuries to point guard Tim Hardaway and, more recently, to shooting guard Dan Majerle. The result: After spending the first month of the season ranked near the top in scoring, the Heat has fallen to 15th but has still maintained its position as the best team in the NBA's Atlantic Division.

Coaches who have spent their careers preaching about maximizing the shot clock have changed their sermons.

"I don't know how many times in the last two years you'd see teams wait until there were a couple of seconds left on the 24-second clock before they'd shoot," Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino said. "You don't see that much of it anymore. The mentality is to score."

The game being played now is closer to the one Pitino remembers growing up.

"Anything to create scoring, I like," Pitino said. "As a spectator, I thought our product was going the other way. It was becoming football rather than basketball. Basketball is a finesse game, a movement game, The cuts were being taken away. It had become ugly."

While there is more movement and better passing, this is not your father's NBA. Not with players flying around like Philadelphia's Iverson, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady of the Toronto Raptors, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and former Maryland star Steve Francis of the Houston Rockets.

Nor does executing a high-scoring offense guarantee success. The Milwaukee Bucks, third behind the Kings and Detroit Pistons with 103 points a game, are giving up nearly as many as they score and are fourth in the Central Division. The Dallas Mavericks are fifth overall in scoring -- and fifth in the Midwest Division standings.

It's also not a coincidence that the five best defensive teams -- the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Lakers, Knicks and Utah Jazz -- are high in the overall standings. "When you come down to it, defense still wins games," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. "But it's a lot less physical than it used to be."

The signing of Dennis Rodman by the Mavericks this week shouldn't change things dramatically. But don't tell that to Iverson. He missed 10 games earlier in the season with a fractured thumb. Even after going for 50 against the Kings, Iverson complained that his thumb is still giving him problems.

Not that the injuries -- or rule changes -- have stopped him often.

"I feel like every defense is soft," he said. "I feel like nobody can guard me."

Some things never change.

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