INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Larry Bird risked bumps, bruises and sometimes worse whenever he dared to attack the rim against the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons or Patrick Ewing's New York Knicks.
He wouldn't have had it any other way. The Boston Celtics star took his share of hits, delivered a few and considered it all just part of the game. The Indiana Pacers president still loves the NBA, even though he feels it has gone a bit soft with rules changes designed to promote a crowd-pleasing style that puts an emphasis on scoring. A lot.
"Every meeting I go to, they talk about scoring," he told The Associated Press with a chuckle. "Everything is geared toward the offense. My solution to that? Just start everybody off at 20 to 20 and play the game the way it's supposed to be played."
Changes over the past decade have opened things up and it's more like a league-wide fast break than it has been in years. Last season, teams averaged more than 100 points per game for the first time since the 1994-95 season.
While Bird isn't necessarily a fan, players don't seem to mind.
"People don't come to see both teams score 40 points and nobody can create shots," Pacers forward Danny Granger said. "It's always more entertaining when people are scoring."
Scoring across the league dropped to 91.6 points per game in the strike-shortened 1998-99 season, the lowest average since the shot clock was introduced in 1954.
The NBA responded by started by limiting the hand checking allowed by defensive players, then began curtailing the use of forearms. The 3-second rule was introduced during the 2001-02 season to keep post players from camping out in the lane.
Teams also started seeking quicker, more versatile players. In the 1980s and '90s, Utah's Karl Malone was the ideal power forward: a 6-foot-9, 260-pound freight train built to handle physical play. Now, many power forwards look like Rashard Lewis: an agile 6-foot-10, 230-pounder who comfortable behind the 3-point line, yet capable of putting the ball on the floor.
"Back when I played, it was more if a grind-it-out, beat-you-down kind of game," said Ewing, now an Orlando Magic assistant. "Now, they want it to be a free-flowing, up-and-down game. It's more suited for the perimeter guys."
Statistics support Ewing's claim. Teams last season attempted more 3-pointers, had the third-highest number of makes and shot the ninth-highest percentage than any season since the league introduced the shot in 1979.
The tempo has increased as well. Overall, teams took more shots last season than any in the past 24 years and shot their highest percentage (.461) since the 1995-96 season.
"The rules of our game have influenced it, 3-point shooting has influenced it," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "There are more skilled players from top to bottom."
Though offense has been emphasized, last year's NBA finalists, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, were among the league's top defensive teams.
"It's fun for fans to see more scoring, but I think you have to adapt to the team you have," Portland coach Nate McMillan said. "Those teams that have been at the top in scoring have not necessarily won the championship or been very successful in the post season."
Still, Bird believes defense largely has been sacrificed.
"It's different in the respect that there's so much money out there and players know it," he said. "They want to be scorers. Back in our day, we had guys who could defend, and they were known as defenders and they took pride in it. But not anymore. Now, it's all offense."
"You'd like to put a big emphasis on defense, but I think players have become more offense oriented," he said. "When other players are working out and doing extra work, they're not working on defense."
The changes have put the old back-to-the-basket post player out of business, and even the largest centers now are versatile. Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who pairs a consistent mid-range jumper with legitimate low-post skills, dropped 20 pounds from his former 278-pound playing weight in the summer. He might not have done that in Bird's day.
"The game seems like it's gotten smaller," Bird said. "If you've got a 7-2 guy, he might not be able to weigh 280. He's got to be able to get up and down the court and be able to defend the post."
For years, teams tried to take advantage of the rules with quicker, smaller players. The average player at the start of the 2008-09 season was a shade under 6-foot-7, the shortest since the league began keeping track in 1985-86. The average weight of 218.5 was the lightest since 1991-92.
Both numbers increased last season as bigger players entered the league with a higher skill level.
Bird says he would have been a power forward in today's game.
"I'd be posting up more," he said. "I think I'd get to the line a lot more. In today's game, I'd definitely go to the hole and try to draw fouls because they can't touch you. Back then, they'd let you do about anything."