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Game-changing developments

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / May 13, 2009
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You're an NBA rookie named Doc Rivers, and someone tells you the day will come when you will be a coach in this league and the opposing team in a playoff series will have a starting front line as follows:

It will be 6-11, 6-10, 6-10.

The 6-10 forwards will each be certified 3-point shooters.

Two of them will never have gone to college and the third will be a native of Turkey.

And your 1983 response would have been?

"Not possible," Rivers says. "I wouldn't have thought that possible. If a guy like that took a three back in those days, he'd probably be suspended. I know he wouldn't be playing."

Unfortunately for Doc, Orlando Magic counterpart Stan Van Gundy is not likely to be benching Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu before this series is over. They're his guys, and firing up threes is a very big part of their games.

As for Dwight Howard, he's no 3-point shooter. He's just a modern version of an old-fashioned, butt-kicking, low-post center.

If he's shooting a three (0 for 2 this season, 1 for 12 lifetime), it means he has somehow been stuck with the ball in a very bad place with the shot clock running down.

The 23-year-old Howard and the 29-year-old Lewis were each drafted out of high school. The 30-year-old Turkoglu is a Turk. Neither of these phenomena would have been imaginable to the 1983 Doc Rivers, either.

The Magic starting front line represents a microcosm of the 21st-century NBA.

The 3-point shot's evolution is a fascinating story. In Doc's rookie year of 1983-84, his Atlanta Hawks made 23 three-pointers all season.

This season, Lewis made 226 and Turkoglu made 134.

That Atlanta '83-84 total is a shocking revelation to a contemporary NBA fan, but it was not out of line. That wasn't even the lowest total in the league. The Bulls made only 20 threes. Other amazing totals: San Diego 24, Portland 25, Seattle 27, Philadelphia 29. The league leader, and by a wide margin, was Utah, with 101, the reason being Darrell Griffith, who had 91 of them. (If you had been awarded extra points for shot arc, Griffith might have led the league in scoring.)

Power forwards knew their place, and it wasn't out by the arc.

"Fours [power forwards] and 5's [centers] were all bangers," notes Rivers. "We had Dan Roundfield at 4 and Tree Rollins at 5. Roundfield didn't go very far from the basket [he was 0 for 11 on threes], and we didn't throw Tree the ball at all.

"The skill level has changed, especially at the 4 spot. Now you run pick-and-rolls with 4's and 5's. And it's not usually a pick-and-roll; it's a pick-and-pop. That's all you hear: pick-and-pop. That's essentially what Baby [Glen Davis] did to get that big shot in Game 4. It was a pick-and-pop."

Danny Ainge feels all that business may have started right here with Larry Bird.

"Larry was a small forward, but he played a lot of power forward," Ainge points out. "Larry wasn't a guy who grew up shooting the three. He was just a great shooter, period. But guys now grow up shooting the three. It has become an integral part of the game. It's a priority of many offenses."

We now have a totally different basketball world, one in which Cleveland has a 7-3 Lithuanian center (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) who'd rather launch an 18-footer than plant his large carcass down in the paint and in which Dallas has a 7-foot German (Dirk Nowitzki) whose 3-point shooting is a devastating weapon.

And notice, please, the nationalities.

"I couldn't have envisioned that when I was a rookie, either," says Rivers. "I guess I kind of knew some Europeans were legit, and you knew some would wind up playing in our league, but you couldn't imagine it becoming as worldwide as it is."

"When I was in college [BYU], we played the Russian national team, and they had some good players," says Ainge. "I had respect for the good European players. But now it is completely global, with the best players from France, Germany, Canada, and China all playing here. That's why this is the best league in the world."

Ainge and Rivers are reasonably contemporary, with the GM preceding his coach as an NBA player by two years. That was the in-between period, when no high school players were entering the draft. That small first crop (Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, Bill Willoughby, etc.) were making their mark, and the second wave, led by Kevin Garnett, had yet to materialize. In the early '90s, it was generally agreed that what those first three had done was an isolated phenomenon and the NBA would never have to deal with teeny-boppers again.

Then came Garnett, a young man from South Carolina via Chicago who believed he was good enough to play in the league right now.

"My first thought was, 'No way!' " says Rivers, who had entered the 1983 draft following his junior year at Marquette. "There's no way you can play coming out of high school."

Then he saw Garnett play.

"I actually did say, 'OK, I was wrong. The kid can play.' "

Lewis offered himself up for the 1998 draft after a successful career at Alief (Texas) High School. The Sonics took him in the second round, and he is now concluding his 11th season. He is a three-time 20-ppg scorer, and you'd certainly have to say his career choice was wise.

Howard was the ultimate, the first pick in the 2004 draft. The Magic had to choose between this sculpted kid from Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy and the best college player on the best college team, Connecticut center Emeka Okafor. The latter has had an OK career for the Charlotte Bobcats, and he keeps getting better, but he's not close to an All-Star.

Howard is, by acclamation, the best center in the league, a shot-blocking and rebounding machine who can also get you 30 points if not monitored properly in the low post. He has had five great seasons in the league, and he won't turn 24 until Dec. 8.

Turkoglu began playing professionally in Turkey at age 17. He was a 2000 No. 1 pick (16th overall) by the Sacramento Kings. He has been a mainstay of the Turkish national team, and his entire profile is that of a modern player, from the extensive international background to his proficiency with the three.

Howard-Lewis-Turkoglu: It's the quintessential futuristic NBA front line, except that the future is now.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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