NBA teams on the defensive as scoring goes slightly down after All-Star break

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Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) goes in for a shot as New Orleans Pelicans forward Herbert Jones (5) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, March 10, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

New Orleans forward Herbert Jones learned a long time ago the critical component to being an elite defensive stopper was keeping whoever you're guarding in front of you.

It's that simple. It's that difficult, too.

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“You do the best you can,” Jones said.

Contrary to popular belief, there HAS been some defense played in the NBA this season (it's just been tougher). It's been on display more following the All-Star break and on the heels of that record-setting 211-186 All-Star Game when all signs of guarding anyone vanished.

The numbers post-break speak volumes about the commitment to defense: Entering Monday, NBA teams were averaging around four points per game less than they were before mid-February, dropping from 115.5 to 111.3.

NBA coaches and players have various explanations for that. Maybe defenders are being allowed to get away with more by officials, becoming wise to the tricks of the elite scorers. Or maybe it’s because the NBA playoff race is tightening up down the stretch.

It's probably as simple as this: Fewer fouls are being called on each team (down from 19.4 per game to 17.5 post-break) and fewer free throws are being attempted (22.7 down to 19.8). Fewer free throws, fewer points.

The NBA says it did not mandate fewer fouls being called.

“We haven't gotten a memo about it, or maybe I wasn't paying attention,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That could be the case. Good. If the competitors and teams can figure it out between those four lines, we're all for it.”

Spoelstra thinks it could be as simple as teams just locking in at an important time of year. Michael Malone, coach of the reigning champion Denver Nuggets, can see that.

“I just think our guys are more disciplined from a personal and game-plan standpoint. I think we’re a lot more urgent,” Malone said. "Our disposition is where it needs to be."

For Jones, guarding someone boils down to fundamentals. He was taught at Alabama to play defense with his chest. Basically, using his footwork to keep his upper body in front of an offensive player and not reaching with his hands.

As for any discrepancy between the amount of calls before and after the All-Star break, well, Jones said it just depends on the night.

“You really never know how things may go, and I think that’s what the first quarter is about,” Jones explained. “You’re just trying to figure out the flow of the game. I mean, try to be physical coming out to see if you can get away with things. But at the end of the day, whatever the refs call, it’s their call and you’ve got to deal with it.”

San Antonio's 7-foot-4 center, Victor Wembanyama, impedes the way of just about anyone who dares enter his lane. In this particular instance, though, the rookie conceded a little ground by saying that fellow Frenchman Rudy Gobert has a good chance of earning his fourth NBA defensive player of the year award.

“Let him earn it now because afterward it won’t be his turn,” Wembanyama joked.

Gobert’s presence in the middle has been big for a Minnesota team missing Karl-Anthony Towns due to a knee injury. Gobert leads the league in defensive rating and remains the heavy favorite to win the defensive award, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Also in the mix are Wembanyama (the league's leader in blocks), Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen, Miami’s Bam Adebayo and Anthony Davis of the Lakers.

At the start of the season, defense took a backseat as high-scoring games became the norm. There have been 15 instances in which a player scored 50 or more points — 16 if you count Towns' 50 in the All-Star Game — including a 73-point outburst from Luka Doncic on Jan. 26.

But none have occurred since the break.

Earlier this season, when scorers were posting gaudy numbers, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked if he would lobby for rule changes in an effort to return to old-school defensive games.

He scoffed.

“No, because that would be a waste of time,” Popovich said. “The league has decided how they want this to be played, and we’ve been doing it for quite a while now and it’s not going in the other direction because the fans love it.

"I don’t know this for a fact, but I am going to guess that our ’05 championship against Detroit had the entire league office just hiding and biting their lip and hoping it would be over quickly because it was so freakin’ boring.”

That 2005 NBA championship was a defensive gem the Spurs won in seven games, when only once did San Antonio or Detroit top 100 points.

This season, the Indiana Pacers are leading the way on offense by averaging 123.1 points a game. Every team averages at least 105.8.

“In this league, there’s always an ebb and flow,” Atlanta coach Quin Snyder said. "Defenses catch up to offenses and offenses adjust and defenses adjust. That’s what makes it a unique league. ... You have to continue to adapt to what’s going on in the game.”

That's the consensus of Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, too.

“These players are very, very smart and understand how to trick the referees,” said Kidd, a Hall of Fame guard who won a title in 2010-11 with Dallas. "What we’re taught to do is get the rules and figure out how to turn them to our advantage as players.

“It will be a little more physical and players who can make that adjustment will have success.”


AP Sports Writers Brett Martel, Schuyler Dixon and Joe Reedy, and Associated Press writer Raul Dominguez, contributed to this report.



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