Pass first? Point guards look to show you can score, win
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Bob Cousy, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas set the standard for championship point guards, winning mostly by setting up their teammates even though they were capable scorers.
Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving are trying to see if they can take a different path to the title, more often beating opponents scoring the basketball, though they are capable passers.
''You've got to be able to create and be aggressive,'' Curry, the league MVP, said. ''I think just more, the skill set of certain guys nowadays might be a little more catered to scoring. If you have a guy that's out there that really can't score, you're at a disadvantage.
''I'm glad I'm playing right now.''
Rules changes over the years have made the game more offense-friendly. The enforcement of rules against hand-checking has opened up offensive lanes, and a lot of the physical defensive pressure has been curtailed. That has led to a significant increase in floor generals looking to score. Of the top 50 regular-season scorers this season, 15 were point guards, tying last year's total for the most ever in a season.
The game hasn't always been this free-flowing offensively. Just five of the top 50 scorers were point guards in 2007-08.
From 1957 to 1990, the trio of Cousy, Johnson and Thomas combined for 13 NBA titles with a pass-first philosophy. Cousy won six with the Boston Celtics, Johnson five with the Los Angeles Lakers and Thomas had two with the Detroit Pistons.
Their counterparts today have the green light to shoot, and shoot often.
Curry finished sixth in the league with nearly 24 points per game, and set a league record for 3-point goals for the Golden State Warriors. Chicago's Derrick Rose, the 2010-11 league MVP, also is a prolific scorer. But they're not alone - there's also Cleveland's explosive Kyrie Irving, the Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul and Washington's John Wall - all top-25 scorers and still in the postseason.
''It's as deep as it ever has been, when you look at the names at the point guard position,'' said Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who won a championship as Dallas' point guard in 2011.
But can a scoring point guard lead a team to the top?
''It depends on who it is,'' Kidd said.
Maybe, but some of the top scoring point guards don't have championship rings.
Allen Iverson won the scoring title in 2005 with the Philadelphia 76ers, yet his team was bounced out of the playoffs that year in the first round - and he ended his career without a title. This year's scoring champion, Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, didn't even reach the playoffs. Damian Lillard and his Portland Trail Blazers have been eliminated from the postseason, as has Toronto's Kyle Lowry.
Some notable high scoring point guards had changed their games before winning a ring.
- Oscar Robertson scored more points than any player in the 1960s, but he didn't win a title until 1971, when Lew Alcindor handled the primary scoring role for the Bucks.
- Jerry West was MVP of the 1969 Finals for the Los Angeles Lakers, averaging nearly 38 points per game against Boston - in a losing cause. He won his only title in 1972, as part of a more balanced attack that included Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain.
- Nate ''Tiny'' Archibald won the scoring title in 1972-73 and averaged 34 points per game, a record for the position that still stands. But he didn't win a title until 1981, as a pass-first teammate of Larry Bird with the Boston Celtics.
But with the changes in the game, Curry and company probably won't alter their play.
In addition to rules against hand checking being implemented in 2004-05, power forwards and centers have more perimeter shooting skills, a threat that has created additional driving lanes.
''In general, you've got a lot more space for guards to move,'' Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. ''And that's why you see guys like Steph or Damian Lillard or Mike Conley or Chris Paul really dominate games with their skills.''
The numbers back up Kerr's perspective.
Point guards scored 23.4 percent of the league's points this season, the highest total ever, according to STATS. They also scored more points per game this season, 46.8, than in any season since 1969-70.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti never expected the game to change, though he's happy they took Westbrook with the fourth pick in the 2008 draft.
''I wish I could tell you we saw that coming, but that's not happening,'' Presti said. ''We got really fortunate.''
Lillard, who ranked 13th in the league with 21 points per game, said another reason high-scoring point guards are thriving is a change in shooting guards. He believes more of today's shooting guards prefer to spot up instead of trying to create their own offense, leaving the ball in the hands of the point guards even more.
''It's not like the Kobes (Bryant) and (Michael) Jordan-type two guards,'' Lillard said. ''I think the NBA is different now with the pick and roll, and it's a lot of point guards. It's a point guard and a big who lead a lot of these teams now.''
Kidd isn't sure the scoring point guard trend will last.
''The game always changes,'' he said. ''You look at bigs, look at perimeter shooting, look at the 3 - a lot of positions have changed. Point guard position now, a lot of guys can make plays and score the ball. They play at a very high level. The game will change again.''
For now, though, high-scoring point guards are enjoying the moment.
AP Basketball Writer Antonio Gonzalez in Oakland, California, AP Sports Writers Teresa Walker in Memphis and Tom Withers in Cleveland, and AP freelancer Andrew Wagner in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .