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Since the hand check rule was implemented nearly two decades ago, the balance of power has continued to shift, increasingly favouring the offensive end of the floor. Each year, a new point of emphasis would change the way the game was officiated, at least briefly; teams would adapt, offensive systems and the league’s most gifted scorers would evolve, and stopping those players would become more and more difficult.
The result has been an influx in scoring. The league average in points per game has gone up in each of the past seven seasons, and nine of the last 10. Last year, teams were putting up 112.1 points a night, the highest mark since the early 1970s.
But through the first week of this new season, Nick Nurse and some of his most venerable players have noticed something.
“Early on in the season you can tell the difference and it’s very physical,” Fred VanVleet said on Tuesday. “Certain things are being called that weren’t before and certain things aren’t being called that were called before.”
“It’s a completely different game out there. I’ve noticed it. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’ve certainly noticed it. I’m watching a ton of games every day. The league looks a lot different from an officiating standpoint.”
“It’s drastically different,” Nurse added. “There’s lots of bumping with the ball handlers, there are lots of hits at the rim. But it’s being called all games, league-wide, both ways. You guys see it. Guys are dribbling around the corner and going down.”
“All you guys probably have to do is compare scores to a year ago and know something’s going on. Something’s changed.”
After dropping three of their first four contests, Nurse had a message for his players going into Wednesday’s meeting with the Indiana Pacers, a team that features two physical big men in Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner.
“Man up,” Toronto’s head coach said. “Man up and let’s go. We know what’s going on out here. Let’s adjust and let’s play. That’s what we’re telling them.”
Message received. The Raptors’ struggling offence was starting to come together in Monday’s 111-108 loss to Chicago. While inconsistent, their defence has mostly been solid, with moments of brilliance, like last week’s convincing win in Boston. Still, this was their most complete game and best two-way performance of the young season, a dominant 118-100 home victory over the visiting Pacers.
Not only did they embrace that physicality, they were the aggressors. Sabonis had a couple early buckets around the rim – deep positioning on a first-quarter post up, as well as a put-back off an offensive rebound – but was mostly neutralized from there. He and Turner combined for 11 points in the opening frame. They totalled eight the rest of the night.
On the other end, the Raptors were relentless. Per Nurse’s recent feedback, rookie Scottie Barnes showed no fear in attacking the rim. He went right at Indiana’s bigs, finishing through contact, and scoring all 18 of his points in the paint. Like Barnes, OG Anunoby used his size, strength and improved footwork and ball handling to score in the post. He scored 16 of his 25 points in the first 12 minutes. VanVleet bounced off defenders, as he often does, and finished with 26 points of his own, to go along with a career-best 10 rebounds and six assists. Dalano Banton served as the backup point guard in place of Goran Dragic and gave them a jolt of energy in his 16 minutes off the bench, scoring 10 points.
“I thought it was a really good overall game in a lot of areas that we’ve needed to improve or were stressing and working on,” Nurse said after his team improved to 2-3 on the campaign. “We guarded really well, we turned them over, played hard, got to the basket.”
You could also see the increased physicality and some of the changes in which the game is being officiated. Late in the first quarter, VanVleet drove into traffic, went airborne and collided with Turner, who blocked the shot. No foul was called, despite some body contact, and VanVleet’s strong objections afterwards. Then, in the third, VanVleet and Anunoby trapped T.J. McConnell in the corner, slapping at the ball, and probably his arm in the process. No foul was called, but McConnell was whistled for a travel.
To Nurse’s point, scoring is down around the league so far. Through the first week of the season, the average team score is 109.3 points, down from 112.3 points one week into last season.
Of course, this year’s point of emphasis for the league’s officials is cracking down on some of the non-basketball moves that offensive players make to embellish contact in the interest of drawing fouls. For instance, James Harden overtly leaning into the defender when launching a deep three, or Luka Doncic kicking his leg out on a jumper.
Generally, this is the time of year when games are called tightly. So, why are so many things being let go this year? One theory, normally the officials’ points of emphasis are to call more of this, or more of that. Now, for the first time in ages, they’re emphasizing calling less or this, and less of that. The result has been a looser whistle.
How long will it last? Are these changes here to stay? That remains to be seen. The NBA wants to see fast-paced, high-scoring games. We’re not going back to the ‘90s in terms of the level of physicality that’s allowed, that much is certain. However, if we are witnessing a shift in what players are able to get away with, that should be beneficial to a team like the Raptors.
Although they’re making strides offensively, and should take another step forward once Pascal Siakam returns in the next few weeks, they’re never going to be a juggernaut on that end of the floor. And that’s fine, because they know they can be a special defensive team.
Through five games, they rank sixth in defensive efficiency, allowing just 100.4 points per 100 possessions. They lead the league in deflections and are second in steals.
Only one team, the Washington Wizards, was called for more fouls than them a year ago. So far, they’ve committed the 12th-fewest fouls this season. For Nurse’s system, which calls for physicality and active hands, the more they can get away with, the better.
“I’m not complaining about it,” Nurse said. “I think it’s physical at both ends. We accept it and like it that way because we want to guard.”
“We’re adjusting to it, adapting to it, it’s gonna take some time,” said VanVleet. “I thought we were definitely very physical tonight… It’s changed so much, drastically, it’s changed. We’ll continue to learn and adapt to it. Not really complaining about it, and it’s just the little, small things here and there but you just can’t really play for fouls anymore. They’re not calling much in terms of one guy trying to get fouled, so it works for us. Defensively, I think it’ll be an advantage and offensively we’ll have to continue to learn and adapt.”