Why is defense dominating modern-day hoops?

Posted Jan. 26, 2012, at 4:08 p.m.

When good basketball teams meet, it’s often difficult to pick a winner but easy to understand why, particularly in the Eastern Maine Class A boys ranks.

Good teams generally have trouble scoring against each other.

Hampden Academy leads the division at 12-1, its loss coming when it managed just 40 points in a one-point defeat at Lewiston. Third-ranked Bangor is 10-3, but has scored no more than 47 points during regulation play in any of its losses.

And both teams’ defenses are allowing well under 50 points per game.

Hampden and Bangor are by no means alone in tracing their rare defeats to offensive woes.

Take Western A power Cheverus of Portland, which suffered its third loss of the winter Monday to equal its worst regular season since 2002. In their losses, the 10-3 Stags have scored 39, 43 and 39 points.

And when Cheverus handed top-ranked Deering of Portland its only loss, the score was 49-40.

Lack of scoring is not new, and not necessarily bad. The games are just as intense as they’ve ever been and the competition is close. It’s just while baskets still are most valued, so, too, are possessions that don’t result in points so long as they contribute something positive such as keeping the ball away from the opponent or drawing a foul.

Why is scoring a challenge?

One reason is that free throws aren’t so free. Struggles at the line are lost scoring opportunities, and mediocrity in that phase of the game has become the norm for many teams.

It used to be a 1,000-point scorer might get a major percentage of that milestone — up to a third — from free throws. Now it’s just as likely that percentage will come from beyond the 3-point arc.

That arc itself has changed the game, with the lure of the rich reward for success too much to ignore, even though teams are lucky to make a third of their attempts during a game.

More shooting practice away from games or scrimmages might produce enhanced accuracy, but with so many more recreational options these days and the increasingly organized nature of off-season basketball, the scenes of pickup games or kids shooting on their own in the backyard are becoming rarer with each passing year.

But most of it has to do with defense. As the game has become more physical, coaches are focusing more and more on defense. As offenses are set in motion farther from the basket to incorporate the 3-point shot, defenses have followed, aggressively contesting perimeter screens with multiple players to deny shots 20 feet from the basket or a dribbler any open space to the lane.

And the game is not so much about creating fast-break offense anymore, but about getting back on defense to deny such quick-strike scoring chances. Fast breaks these days are just as likely to come from turnovers generated by an aggressive defense as from rebounds leading to outlet passes.

One somewhat popular notion to address the offensive woes is to add a shot clock, but 30-second possessions aren’t all that common now and all a shot clock will do is rush teams into bad shots even earlier during a possession.

What’s good to see is the public’s increasing acceptance of the fact that watching stifling defense can be just as entertaining as a run-and-gun shootout. I took particular notice early in a recent game when fans rose to give their team a standing ovation after its rival tried unsuccessfully to penetrate its hard-nosed, man-to-man defense.

Plus, lower-scoring games make my career average seem more impressive than it really wasn’t.

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