Washington coach Scott Brooks stood outside the visiting locker room at Staples Center on Monday night, a tinge of defeatism in his voice — and this was before his team allowed the Clippers to score 136 points.
The scoring this season is completely rewriting the rules of what a “good” defensive night looks like on the scoreboard.
“There’s a lot of scoring. A lot of things you’d say weren’t good defensively last year or two years ago that’s out the window,” Brooks said. “There are so many games you watch now and the games are in the 120s, 130s and 140s.
“…We’re all kind of looking at it like, ‘Where’s it all coming from?’”
Two weeks into the NBA season, the league has fully embraced the art of putting the ball in the basket, scoring more in 2018 than in any year since 1970. The sample sizes are small, but the writing is on the wall.
You want to be a good defensive team? Good luck trying to keep points off the scoreboard.
“It’s the new normal,” Clippers guard Avery Bradley said. “The only counter is scoring just like the other team.”
The numbers are eye-popping. Through Sunday’s games, the average NBA team is scoring 112.1 points per game — nearly six more than a year ago and 12 more than the 2014-15 season. They’re making and taking more shots, they’re making and taking more threes and they’re playing at speeds not seen since the mid 1980s.
And as a result, the benchmarks for success — like holding teams to 100 points and keeping them below 45% from the field — are quickly becoming obsolete.
“107 points is the new 100,” one NBA assistant said.
It’s a good observation — in the 95 games played to date, only 15 [nearly 16%] were won by teams that scored fewer than 107 points. Only four teams in the NBA have managed to win this season when scoring fewer than 100.
The surge in scoring isn’t a surprise — the league’s been trending in this direction for a while, with the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty throwing gasoline on the offensive embers.
When they won their first title in 2015, the Warriors attempted 27 three-pointers per game — fourth-most in the league. So far this season, only five teams are taking fewer than that per night [the Clippers being one of them].
The year of Stephen Curry’s first NBA title, there were 20 games in which a team took 40 or more three-point shots. In the first 13 days of the 2018-19 season, it’s already happened 24 times.
Plus those shots are coming earlier in the shot clock — a mind-set that comes from the simple idea that the faster you shoot, the more possessions you get, giving you more chances to score.
Add in a leaguewide emphasis on freeing up offensive-player movement by calling more fouls off the ball for holding and grabbing, and scoreboard operators are working harder than they have in years.
There are some who think the officiating, which has led to an uptick in free throws, will eventually settle down — with referees calling fewer fouls as players adjust to how the game is being called.
“It puts more of an emphasis on, probably, [defensive] technique,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I think everyone is trying to figure out … really you could call a foul on every play. There’s contact on every play. What’s being called, what’s not being called … Right now, the offensive players are able to get away with a lot more.”
It’s something everyone is still learning — Toronto coach Nick Nurse went into a demonstration with media members, pulling and grabbing on reporters, trying to show what can and can’t be done defensively.
Nurse, who coaches a good defensive team in the Raptors, hasn’t walked off the court with someone scoring fewer than 100 points this season — and he won every time before losing Monday night in Milwaukee 124-109.
“I don’t get into the number; it’s not really about the number,” he said, launching into the list of what he does care about. “Do I think our guys are engaged? Is everybody committed to playing? Is it a fast-paced game?
“I don’t really care if they’ve got 110 or 115 as long as we’ve got 120. The number, the big numbers, are more [about] style of play than a lack of defense.”
It’s forced an adjustment in psyche. Danny Green, Toronto’s starting shooting guard, said he’s had to push the target for points allowed per quarter past 25 points — and that wasn’t always the case.
“It could [mess with your head], for sure. But you can’t let it,” Green said. “You need to know how today’s game is played, how it’s being officiated. It’s all predicated on giving the offense an advantage with an up-and-down pace and guys shooting a lot of threes.”
Bradley, who like Green has been voted onto the NBA’s all-defensive teams, said the mind-set shouldn’t be any different from when he tries to check Kyrie Irving, Curry or any of the league’s other toughest assignments.
“It goes hand in hand with guarding a good player. You can’t stop a good player from scoring points. You just have to make every possession hard on him. And, I think that’s the most important thing,” Bradley said. “As long as you’re out there executing your defensive principles consistently through a game, I think that’s the most important thing. Teams are going to score. Good players are going to score. You can’t completely shut a good player down. You just want to make it hard on him.”
Sunday night, Brooks was right to be upset. His team’s defensive effort was atrocious; the Clippers got a lot of easy shots, they got wide-open looks from the corners and they feasted in transition.
Looking up at the scoreboard and seeing “136” under the opponent’s name, that’s bad. Everyone knows it.
But 105? 110? 115? In the new NBA, it’s all relative.