LOS ANGELES – Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau thought his team’s 120-109 loss to the Clippers was one of the more physical games they have played this season.
That might not have seemed like such a big deal five seasons ago or even last season, but in this particular year, that’s worth mentioning.
That’s because the NBA has told officials to emphasize an offensive player’s “freedom of movement,” a phrase quickly becoming part of the basketball vernacular. Freedom of movement means defenders can’t grab or hold the player they are guarding, even if the player is stationary.
“How we adjust to the way the game is being called is critical,” Thibodeau said.
For the Wolves, and the rest of the league for that matter, the adjustment is ongoing. In the meantime, offenses are flourishing.
According to Basketball Reference, teams are averaging 111.7 points per game, 5.4 points more per game than last season. There are a number of factors that have created this scoring bubble — increased pace of play, plus teams shooting (and making) more three-pointers are among them — but across the league, coaches and players said “freedom of movement” deserves some of the credit.
“I think it brings the focus back to fundamentals, which is important for our league,” Thibodeau said.
The emphasis has changed the way players defend and how coaches tell them to defend. Take Toronto coach Nick Nurse. Nurse said coaches would instruct their players to wrap or hold their man if they were standing still. Now, the rules are eliminating this action.
“Sometimes the whistle blows and nobody knows what’s going on, but … they don’t want you to grab and wrap your arms around people and hold them,” Nurse said. “The first thing we told them is to stop doing that. They’re calling it, and we have to find ways to still be physical without wrapping our arms around people.”
This isn’t a bad thing for the game, Nurse said.
“I know it’s frustrating for everyone, but what they’re doing kind of makes sense,” Nurse said.
Similarly, Clippers coach Doc Rivers joked: “I’m trying to get them to be sneakier with the holding.”
Rivers said the rule changes also have caused teams to adjust offensively. Specifically, the pin-down is making a comeback and is mixing in more frequently with the pick-and-roll. A pin-down is a screen one player sets while moving toward the baseline.
Since it’s easier for offensive players to move off the ball, it’s easier for them to maneuver around screens their teammates set off the ball.
“Last year it was all pick-and-rolls,” Rivers said. “Now the pin-downs are coming back because you can’t grab, you can’t hold. If you’re a shooter right now and you’re a movement guy, you’re in heaven right now because it’s tough to stop you.”
Free-throw attempts are up by nearly three per game to 24.4 as a result of the added calls. That has been perhaps the biggest adjustment for the Wolves. Their defensive rating of 114.7 points allowed per 100 possessions is second worst in the league after they were 25th with a rating of 110.1 a season ago.
“We just got to play without fouling more, not use our hands and just play hard,” guard Jimmy Butler said. “If they call a foul, they call a foul.”
And there might be more fouls where there weren’t a season ago.
• Jimmy Butler’s playing status is still day to day as he deals with what Thibodeau said is “general soreness” while Butler works himself back into shape. Butler was asked Monday if the noise surrounding his trade request has seeped into his play.
“I play basketball, I play to win. … That’s my job. I’m not worried about nothing, none of that,” Butler said. “You continue to ask those questions, but it’s not going to change the way I go about the game, not going to change the way I interact with guys in this locker room.”
• The Celtics were a popular pick to finish first in the Eastern Conference, and while they haven’t had a bad start at 6-4, they are behind teams such as Milwaukee (8-1) and Toronto (10-1). Their offensive rating of 103.5 is 27th in the league and Gordon Hayward has had a slow start in his first games back from a fractured ankle. He is averaging only 10.1 points and shooting 40 percent from the field.
• The Nuggets seems to have found gold in Denver with a 9-1 start, bested in the West by only Golden State at 10-1. Nikola Jokic is the main reason for this. His player efficiency rating, which encapsulates a player’s statistical output into one number, is 27.6, sixth in the league and ahead of stars such as LeBron James and James Harden.
Chris Hine covers the Timberwolves for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @ChristopherHine. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org