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New Rules Are Radically Changing the NBA


The people who run the National Basketball Association have been thinking quite a bit about which weapons their fans prefer -- rapiers or broadswords.

The rapier is offense. It is thrust and parry, skill and smarts, daring and savvy. It is the stuff of highlights.

The broadsword is defense. It is sweat and grit, strength and will, stamina and machismo. It is the stuff of a common man well motivated.

The NBA season opens Friday, and for those who have neglected to watch an exhibition game, know now that this is supposed to be the year of the rapier.

For the fan, it will be the year of the midnight snack. There are going to be some long games, because there are going to be a lot of whistles, because a number of new rules have been adopted.

A group of these rules represent a crackdown on physical play and fighting. Another group is designed to open the floor and make the game more conducive to scoring.

The latter group will radically change the game:

--The three-point line has been moved to a uniform 22 feet. From 1979-80 through last season, the line was 23 feet, 9 inches at the top of the key and 22 feet in the corners.

--Hand-checking, a tactic which has forever had the tacit approval of officials, has been strictly forbidden in the backcourt and above the free-throw line. Contact with the forearm -- from the wrist to the elbow -- is all that's allowed. And the elbow must be bent.

--Below the free-throw line, one-hand contact is allowed -- but two-handed contact has been outlawed.

--New illegal defense rules make it difficult to double-team because a defender can no longer drop below the free-throw line when his man is above the top of the key. That would be a technical foul.

Rod Thorn, director of NBA operations, was a key figure in devising and implementing the new rules. Thorn said the new rules should produce two desirable results: No. 1, bring the NBA closer to the standards set by FIBA, the governing body of the international game; and No. 2, stanch the defensive methods that have been practiced since the Detroit Pistons began hanging banners.

Remember those loveable Bad Boys? Rick Mahorn? Bill Laimbeer? Dennis Rodman? Those fellows proved that Showtime can be bested by Slowtime. They bear-trapped the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers and won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. They set a trend.

"When defense gave a team a chance to get to the Finals, it became like anything else -- other teams were going to start playing defense," New York Knicks coach Pat Riley said.

The Chicago Bulls came along and won three consecutive titles. Granted, they were built around Michael Jordan, the greatest scoring machine of the modern era. He was showcased in the triangle offense -- a perfect device to take advantage of Jordan as a basketball god while allowing every other Bull to touch the ball.

But make no mistake: As lovely as the triangle was to watch, it was the Bulls' pressure-and-help defense, devised by then-assistant coach John Bach, which put the stranglehold on the Lawrence J. O'Brien trophy from 1991-93. Like the Pistons, the Bulls won with defense.

And then came last season.

"Detroit used defense to win it all, Chicago did, and we got to the Finals with it," Riley said. "You start emphasizing that part of the game, things are going to get a little physical."

Broadsword basketball peaked with the 1994 NBA Finals, which pitted the league's top-rated defensive team (Riley's Knicks) against the fifth-rated defensive team (the Houston Rockets).

The series went seven games. The Rockets averaged 86 points and won. Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich compared it to winning a fight in the mud.

"We looked at the games and saw that the physical contact had gone to the outer extremes," Thorn said. "I'm not talking about the fights, but all the grabbing, holding and shoving was making it almost impossible to move from place to place on the basketball court."

The recently completed exhibition season proved that the rules governing physical contact will have the most significant and immediate impact.

"The players in this league are talented enough to start playing defense the way it is supposed to be played," Boston Celtics Coach Chris Ford said. "There's no longer going to be the grabbing, holding, wrestling matches which take away from the beauty of the game. I like the players having the ability to move out there on the floor. That's the way the game is supposed to be played."

The floor has definitely been opened. "Tactile contact" -- the rule-book reference to what used to be an allowable hand check -- has been suspended. Cutters have been cutting without impediment. Every night, ESPN has a new highlight of Pistons rookie forward Grant Hill throwing down an alley-oop dunk in Detroit or Magic guard Anfernee Hardaway ripping through the lane for a finger-roll in Orlando. The post has been freed. Even Celtics center Acie "Jurassic" Earl has been scoring (7.3 ppg).

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