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Celtics among first to join NBA scoring spree

The numbers jump out at you each day, to the point where you think they must be misprints.

Boston 134, LA Clippers 127. Miami 117, Orlando 107. Phoenix 112, Seattle 110. Charlotte 101, Houston 100.

Scoring is back in the NBA.

That is a good thing, and the 2004-05 Celtics are right on the cusp of this change. Those merry ramblers from Phoenix may be pushing the envelope, but the Celtics and several others are in hot pursuit.

As of yesterday, there were eight teams, including the Celtics, who were averaging 100 points a game. Last year, only two teams averaged 100 points a game, the Mavericks and the Suns. This year, through Sunday, there were 19 teams who were averaging 95 or more points a game. Last year, there were eight. "There is an increase [in scoring]," said Stu Jackson, the NBA's operations chief who monitors these things. Overall scoring is up to 95.6 points a game, an increase of more than 2 points a game from last year's 93.4, the lowest average for a full (as in non-lockout) season since 1954-55. Shooting percentage is up marginally, from last year's 43.9 percent to 44.1 percent this season.

"The big key," said Jackson, "is that free throw attempts are up, around two per team per game. And that, in large part, is due to the focus on defenders [illegally] using their hands and forearms. It has [given incentive to] the offensive player to take the ball to the basket, where he may get fouled or where he uses dribble-penetration that results in a higher quality shot."

But, Jackson said, there may be another reason for the increase in scoring: style of play. To that, we say, hallelujah! Led by the high-octane Suns, who average a mind-boggling 109.5 points a game, there are several teams who are embracing the running game. Mercifully, the words "fast break" are starting to reappear on chalkboards and clipboards around the league.

We've heard Doc Rivers talk about running the ball, moving the ball, sharing the ball and, to date, his Celtics are trying to do just that. The Celtics push the ball -- they have been among the league leaders all season in the very subjective category of fast-break points -- and the coach gives them a pretty long leash. In my mind, a signature moment from this season is still Rivers's refusal to call a timeout on the final possession of the Nov. 10 game with Portland, forcing the team to come up with a play. Ninety-nine percent of coaches at any level would have called a timeout in that situation. Rivers didn't. And the Celtics won the game.

The Celtics enter tonight's game with Miami ranked fifth in the league in scoring, averaging 101.2 points a game. (The Heat, who average an even 100 a game, were ranked eighth.) That's an increase of almost 6 points a game over last season. In six of their last 10 games, including their big OT win at Cleveland Saturday, the Celtics have crossed the century mark. In eight of their last 10 games, they've scored 98 or more points. And who can forget Rivers, after the 100-99 loss to Denver, saying, "on a scale of 1 to 10, our offense was probably a 3."

A three? In the past, if the Celtics' offense was a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10, they would have been lucky to score 80. Alas, Rivers attributed the loss to shoddy defense, and he probably was right. You still have to make stops.

But the Suns, Sonics, Wizards, and Magic, none of whom made the playoffs last season, are evidence that you also can put a premium on offense and live to tell about it. Last season, those four teams were a combined 104 games under .500, with the Magic owning the league's worst record, 21-61. This year, the four are a combined 39 games over .500 -- the Suns and Wizards played last night -- and all easily would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today. The Suns have the league's best record.

Those four teams are among the top six scoring teams in the league. If you add the other four teams also averaging 100 or more points, Sacramento, Miami, Minnesota, and Boston, the eight are a combined 66 games over .500. The Celtics are the only one of those eight not to have a record of at least four games over .500. (Washington played late last night.)

So have we finally come to the point where coaches and execs no longer consider "shot" to be a four-letter word? If the first quarter of the NBA season is any example, you have to hope the answer is in the affirmative. And you also have to hope that the NBA, being the copycat league that it is, will become a league in which scoring 100 is the norm. After all, it wasn't too long ago (1994-95) when the average per-team ouput was 101.4 points.

Save for a couple blips, scoring and shooting have been on a plunge ever since. Now all we have to do is hope for the Great Eight to keep it going, all season, and for others to jump on board.

Otherwise, we're in for a San Antonio-Detroit final and you know what that means: First team to 80 wins. Ugh.

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