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Block party

NBA is seeing explosion of swatted shots

Houston's Steve Francis gets a step on Utah's John Stockton and cruises into the lane, where he rises for what looks like an uncontested shot.

Out of nowhere comes Jazz center Jarron Collins, swatting the shot back to the halfcourt circle.

It's a scene we've seen repeatedly this season, as the league experiences an explosion in blocked shots.

And that is a direct result of offseason changes in the NBA, according to Jazz assistant coach Gordon Chiesa.

"Because of the new defensive rules, you can really step across the lane to block shots at any time," Chiesa said. "You just can't do it for more than 2.9 seconds."

When the new defensive rules were announced last year, the doomsayers predicted a league dominated by shotblockers like Dikembe Mutombo and Shawn Bradley. They envisioned games littered with bad jump shots as players feared to go into the lane.

There has been an increase in blocked shots, but it's not the Mutombos and Bradleys who are enjoying that largesse. The guys you think of as shotblockers are still getting their swats, but it's the other guys — the quick, long-armed leaper types — who have picked it up in that category.

"Its the mid-size guys like Shawn Marion and Andrei Kirilenko and Paul Pierce, those guys, who are blocking shots," Chiesa said. "Mid-size guys are more athletic. A guy like Marion, for example, is a good shot-blocker for a guy 6-foot-7. And now he can come across the lane and block shots."

The stats tell the story. Pierce, for example, swatted 69 shots last season. This season he is on a pace to block 99.

Kirilenko, a rookie, is 12th in the league in blocks per 48 minutes, at 3.50.

As a team, the Jazz have 236 blocks. Over an 82-game season, that works out to 553 blocked shots. Last season they swatted 463. That's a 19 percent increase. It would be the franchise's highest total in that category since the 1988-89 season.

Similar results are being seen leaguewide. Last season's top shotblocking team, the Cavaliers, averaged 6.6 blocks per game. This season, eight teams are on pace to equal or better that mark.

What is happening is that shooters are getting stuffed by guys who aren't their primary defenders. A typical scenario has a shooter in the lane vicinity somehow eluding his man, then getting swatted by a help defender racing from nearby.

And that scenario is a direct result of the new rules. What the rules essentially allow teams to do — at least, those teams that have figured it out — is to pack the lane like never before.

"You can do that now without being called for an illegal defense," Chiesa explained. "As long as you're moving, (the refs) will give a little slack. They want to eliminate just standing in the lane, not guarding anybody. So even if you're in the lane 3.1 seconds, if you're moving, they'll give you the benefit of the doubt."

So let's say Kirilenko's man is on the right side, spotting up in the corner. A guard with the ball drives the left side, fakes his primary defender into the air, then rises for a shot. But Kirilenko comes up behind his teammate to knock the shot into the third row.

"It's a great opportunity for the mid-size guys to block shots," Chiesa said. "You can be in the lane for 2.9, and if you have good timing, which most of these guys do, when the opponent penetrates in there, you can get there and block his shot."

The big shotblocking centers, meanwhile, are usually primary defenders and get fewer opportunities at the free-lance block.

"As good as they are, as far as shot-blockers, they don't have the same timing as the guys who are much more athletic," Chiesa said. "Blocking shots is more of an athletic thing now. It's about timing, getting an extension of your arms."

An increase in blocked shots isn't the only unexpected effect of the new rules. About two weeks ago, the Jazz were looking at film of the Celtics prior to a game in Boston when they discovered something interesting.

"They understood the rules, totally, from day one," Chiesa said, admiringly. "When we watched films of them, we really picked up the pace."

What the Jazz saw the Celtics doing was not defying the 2.9-second rule but using it. The rules say a defender can re-enter the lane once he makes contact with an offensive player. So the Celtic defenders would shuttle back and forth across the lane, touching an offensive player, which gave them a fresh 2.9 seconds.

"They (the refs) call it 'clearing yourself,"' said Chiesa. "So you can go from one block to the other, and that's perfectly fine."

Utah lost that game to the Celtics, but since then the Jazz have won seven of eight. In that stretch, they've held opponents to 42.7 percent shooting from the field, 89 points per game. That's 2 percent better field-goal defense and seven fewer points a game than they've averaged for the season.

"It helped tremendously," Chiesa said. "There's a direct correlation between us getting more repetition of the new defensive rules and our defensive scoring average going down over the last 10 games. We attribute that to better understanding of the defensive rules and knowing how to react better out of it."

Even though the new rules were supposed to be in effect during summer league and preseason games, Chiesa said they learned very little until the regular season started.

"We knew the rules, and we taught the rules, but when we saw the Celtics, how all their guys were really in the lane and reacting, everybody said, 'Hey, they can do that. That's legal. Look where they are. They're not calling it.' That really helped us."

Chiesa said the new rules have another positive effect: They force defenders to stay active. And that, he believes, is at least in part responsible for the string of productive games Greg Ostertag has had lately.

"When you're resting on defense and a guy penetrates, you're slow to react," Chiesa said. "But when you're active and moving and back-and-forth in the lane and a guy penetrates, you can react better and get a higher percentage of blocked shots and contested shots."

E-mail: rich@desnews.com