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Friday, April 19, 2013
Scoring has to drop in playoffs, right?

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

You've heard it so much that you probably just accept it as fact: The NBA playoffs are here, which means scoring is about to go down, as if teams indulge themselves in points throughout the regular season then suddenly give them up like it's Lent.

There's nothing in the league's collective bargaining agreement that says it has to be that way. (I've even checked with Larry Coon.) And this year it won't be that way, at least not in the Western Conference.

Scoring doesn't go down because of the time of year. Scoring goes down when teams make it their business to bring it down -- and that's not on the agenda for most of the Western playoff teams.

Seven of the top nine scoring teams in the league qualified for the playoffs in the West. The only outlier in the group is Memphis; everyone else wants to treat the game like Pop-A-Shot.

So bring on the buckets. The rules -- no hand-checking, defensive three seconds -- encourage it. Coaches are letting their teams play loosely. This is the current state of the game. Did you know that last year's NBA Finals, when the Miami Heat beat the Oklahoma City Thunder by an average score of 102-98, was the highest-scoring Finals since 2002?

These playoffs will feature the team (Knicks) and player (Stephen Curry) that just set single-season records for made 3-pointers. They will include a Denver Nuggets team that averaged more fast-break points than any playoff qualifier since the 2007 Golden State Warriors (and we all remember how much fun that team was).

I'm not the only one who's skeptical of the idea that the playoffs demand slower pace and lower scores.

"I've been doing this for a long time," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said midseason. "And ... Every. Single. Year. You hear the same stuff: 'Well, it's going to be half court now. It's going to do this. It's going to be that.' It just sort of fades away. Nobody has any proof of anything. It's just psycho-babble, really.

"It slows down maybe in some respects because [of] defense, energy, anxiety. Everybody's out there playing their best basketball. When it gets slowed down, it's not a purposeful thing. It's just a natural progression of the way things go. Coaches and teams don't go into the playoffs and say, 'We're going to play slower. We're going to have fewer possessions. We're going to slow this thing down.' That doesn't happen."

When Steve Nash got to Phoenix and started running Mike D'Antoni's system, they averaged 110 points per game during the 2004-05 season. During the playoffs that number went up, to 112 points per game. The postseason undoing of those Suns teams wasn't that they stopped scoring; it was that they couldn't stop anyone else -- particularly the Spurs -- from scoring.

"There's times and there's series and there's opportunities where you get to run more," Nash said. "It's just a matchup thing.

"I think our biggest problem was we never had a center that could guard the rim. Teams that win in the playoffs eventually have somebody that can protect the rim. That's just something we never had."

Popovich lamented that the undoing of the 2012 Spurs was their inability to get fourth-quarter stops. Then again, when you're in the playoffs, eventually you're going to go up against players who are simply unstoppable.

Michael Jordan averaged 30 points per game during the regular season -- and 33 per game during the playoffs, when he'd presumably face better defenses on a nightly basis. Likewise, Kevin Durant and LeBron James have higher scoring averages in the playoffs than the regular season.

Midway through their second-round series last year, the Indiana Pacers had held the Miami Heat below their season average of 98.5 points in each of the first three games. Then the Heat went off for an average of 107 points to win the final three games. What happened? A couple of superstars happened.

"I think LeBron and Wade just raised their game to a level that nobody had seen with those two playing together," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "Wade had been on that level before. LeBron had been on that level in Cleveland. Nobody had seen that together."

Maybe we'll see Durant and Russell Westbrook combine for 80. Perhaps Stephen Curry hits 10 3-pointers. I'm looking for more, not less.

I'll close with a thought that came to mind with the passing of longtime football broadcaster Pat Summerall this week. Technically it's a John Madden story, but I realized it was Summerall who allowed Madden to flourish -- to become the Hey! Boom! John Madden that we loved -- because Summerall didn't hog the microphone. In this particular game, Washington had just scored a touchdown at RFK Stadium, and the jubilant fans were so excited they were swaying. The director cut to different shots of the celebratory crowd, as Summerall kept quiet as usual. Finally, Madden weighed in: "You know, touchdowns equal happiness."

That's the way I feel about scoring in the NBA. Points equal joy. And these should be a joyous playoffs.