http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/26/sp...gewanted=print


N.B.A. Fans Tune in as Playoffs Add Drama
By LIZ ROBBINS
Every night has seemed like the Fourth of July during the N.B.A. playoffs, bright and breathtaking to the frantic finale, with few duds in the show.

Television ratings have risen like LeBron James at the rim. When Steve Nash led the plucky Phoenix Suns to a last-second victory over his former team, Dallas, in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, the smoke had barely cleared from the Mavericks' upset of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.

Why, some might wonder when rubbing their eyes the next morning, have the games been more dramatic?

Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich offered a concise explanation just before his team lost Game 7 at home to Dallas. "Maybe the new rules have created parity where everybody is able to attack more and everybody's best players are able to show their wares and be aggressive," he said.

"People can use small lineups, big lineups, there's more variation on the floor," Popovich said. "Everybody knows how to take advantage of the rules. Thus you see the scores and the dynamic play of everybody on the floor. It's not just isolation; it's attacking, it's pace."

In 73 games (not including last night's Detroit-Miami game), 14 have been decided by 2 points or less (tying a 1995 record) and 23 have been decided by 5 points or less. Teams are shooting 46.1 percent, the highest mark since 1993. The 2-point field-goal percentage is 49.1, the highest since 1991, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The fast pace of the games and the numbers did not just explode overnight. Five years ago, Jerry Colangelo, then the Suns' owner and chairman of the N.B.A. Board of Governors, had a game-altering conversation with Commissioner David Stern.

"I was in New York, and I told him how down I was on the game and as much as I loved the game, I didn't like it the way it was played," Colangelo said yesterday in a telephone interview from Dallas. "We had a long conversation, and he said, 'Go ahead, put a committee of people together and go at it.' "

A committee was formed in March 2001, and it included executives, former coaches and players like Jerry West, Rod Thorn, Dick Motta, Jack Ramsay and even Miami center Alonzo Mourning. It introduced rules to discourage isolation plays, reduce physicality (hip and forearm checks) and enable cutters to move through the lane unimpeded.

"It was becoming more and more of a contact sport, which takes away from the finesse part, making it almost impossible to play," Thorn, the Nets president, said yesterday.

After 2004, when the Pistons won their defense-oriented title, referees cracked down on hand-checking along the perimeter. The zone defense was made legal again in the 2001-2 season, further opening the floor.

As a result, the high pick-and-roll has become so prevalent, young superstars like James and Miami's Dwyane Wade are slashing a familiar path to the basket.

Stu Jackson, the N.B.A.'s senior vice president for basketball operations, said officials had altered their interpretation on block-charge calls. "Referees have a tendency to call blocks when there are ties, and all of those factors have served to encourage players going to the basket," Jackson said.

Jason Terry, the Mavs' 6-foot-2 guard, has noticed. "Definitely this is the most dunks I've had in my whole career," he said last week, "just because the lane is so open now, if you blow by someone you can get to the basket and finish."

Dirk Nowitzki, Terry's teammate, and the Suns' Boris Diaw are doing the same. Nowitzki has adapted his 3-point-shooting game toward the trends of athleticism and penetration.

To speed play, the league changed how long a team had to bring the ball over midcourt to 8 seconds from 10. The Suns have not needed that much time since Nash signed two years ago and won two M.V.P. awards while pushing the tempo to the brink.

"Hopefully the wave of the future is the history of the past," Bob Cousy, the Boston Celtics' Hall of Fame guard, said yesterday in a telephone interview. "Transition, that's the way all the teams played in my day."

The Suns have perfected it. "For Coach Mike D'Antoni, this is what he believes in anyway," said Colangelo, the Suns' chief executive and chairman. "Then you got to have the right people."

Or person. Nash, as the Dallas Mavericks' owner, Mark Cuban, rationalized after letting him go, is the best possible fit for D'Antoni. The Suns, averaging 110.5 points in the postseason, are playing even smaller because the 6-11 Amare Stoudemire played in only three games this season because of a knee injury. With Nash averaging 10.6 assists and the Suns shooting 48.5 percent, he is facilitating the flow, planning the pick-and-roll party.

It is this kind of play, rather than individual personalities, that piques the viewers' interest, Cuban said. "Pick the one rivalry that everybody across the country is tuning into," he asked last week. "That's the point, you can't. I think great games sell."

He, too, believed the new rules helped create the greatness, promoting versatile players and better shooters like Nowitzki, Josh Howard, Terry and Devin Harris.

"I thought the New York Knicks have a brilliant roster — if you put them in a system when you're pushing them," Cuban said, adding that he did not want to indict Coach Larry Brown's style. "That's our roster."

Cuban said, "Shaq isn't as dominant and you look at the perimeter players, it's a different type of dominance."

But will this diminish the diversity of the league, specifically Shaquille O'Neal?

Jackson noted that Miami's style has worked for the Heat. Although O'Neal is contending with quick whistles, Wade has taken advantage of the double-teams O'Neal still attracts. The Heat posted the second-best shooting percentage in the second round — 49.3 percent — against the Nets. The Clippers had the best percentage, at 50.9.

"It's harder to cover people, wing people, in particular, without fouling," Thorn said.

Cousy argued that defenders needed to improve, but bemoaned how coaches interpreted that by turning the game into a grinding, walk-it-up affair. "This Dallas-Phoenix series is near and dear to my heart," Cousy said. "For the old-timers, it's refreshing to see."



Home
World U.S. N.Y. / Region Business Technology Science Health Sports Opinion Arts Style Travel Jobs Real Estate Automobiles Back to Top
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
Privacy Policy Search Corrections XML Help Contact Us Work for Us Site Map