Players, coaches frustrated, trying to adapt to new clutching, grabbing calls from refs

Associated Press
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Stephen Curry raced from the post up to the arc to set a backscreen on Phoenix’s Trevor Ariza, freeing up Kevin Durant’s cut to the rim, where KD was wide open for the pass and dunk …

And then the whistle blew. Curry had held Ariza just a little on the pick to slow him — something common the past couple of seasons, but the kind of clutching and grabbing referees have been told to focus on and call tight this season. Curry got called for the foul, his third offensive foul of the game.

Curry was frustrated, but not as frustrated as coach Steve Kerr, who stormed out onto the court and got ejected from a preseason game for complaining about the call.

Welcome to this NBA preseason, where games have been especially choppy with the seemingly constant sound of whistles as officials crack down on “freedom of movement” for offensive players. It’s a point of education (what used to be called more accurately a point of emphasis) from the league. In the past couple of years, when a player set a pick he could hook the defender just a little to slow him, or, more commonly, the defender being screened or switching would do something — bumping him, grabbing his jersey, hooking an arm around him, sticking out a leg — to slow that offensive player down half a step. Do that now and the whistle blows.

Players and coaches are trying to adjust — and adjust their tactics.

“I think for the officials, they’ve been trying to set a standard, ‘hey, this is how we’re going to call games, this is what you’re going to get away with,’” Kevin Love told NBC Sports. “I think in the preseason they want to set the tone early and be transparent about what they are going to call out there on the floor…

“In our first preseason game it was pretty tight, at least in the first half, but as time went on they kind of let us play on but they had teaching points for us. Guys were asking on the free throw line what they did.”

The league had an idea on how to sell these new, tighter calls to players in a way they would appreciate.

“When we had our officials meeting, we heard how (the calls) were going to, for lack of a better term, help your scoring, it was going to be very conducive to scoring the basketball,” Love said.

Coaches know that the NBA has become about scoring — that is the show, it’s what drives ratings and ticket sales — and with that, the league will take steps to help the offense before the defense. That doesn’t mean coaches are enthralled with it, but they are telling players to adjust — show their hands while setting screens or defending them.

“Defensively, our guys have got to be smarter. One thing that we got caught up with in the first couple games is the contact,” Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey told NBC’s Dan Feldman. “We want our guys to be physical and into offensive players, but again, you can’t have two hands on him. The old instincts come back, and that’s what the league wants, that freedom of movement. But we’ve got to be smarter, especially early in the season when they’re really emphasizing it…

“Guys are going to have to have quicker feet. You’ve got to move your feet quickly, anticipate where guys going are or you’re going to get blown by, because a lot of guys use that so-called tactile touch to make sure they have balance and kind of slow the guy down. But now it’s about feet and anticipation as much as anything else. So, you’ve got to be on your Ps and Qs defensively more so than ever.”

At this point, for the coaches, it’s about adjustments, both mental and in tactics on the court.

“I think that’s what a good coach does. I think he understands the rules and adapts, like I said, on both sides of the ball,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said.

“We’ve already made those adjustments,” Erik Spoelstra said this preseason. “We’ve had to… Some of the things we have to adjust the way we used to defend it. We don’t bump people through the lane. And pick-and-rolls, we’re not hitting people. We’re just getting to our spots and being disruptive.”

One thing every coach and the veteran players talked about was how this emphasis on calls will fade as the season goes along. Every year the league comes out with its new focus for referees, and in the preseason they whistle everything. When the season starts, that slows, and by the middle of the season things have found their level — players are doing it less, but official allow a little more leeway.

“It’s a point of emphasis by the officials, 18 years in the league there is always a point of emphasis. In the preseason they really harp on that, they call it. A lot of times it kind of goes away once the regular season comes,” said Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone. “Players can complain all they want but part of being a smart, disciplined basketball player is adjusting to the rules and adjusting to the whistle. They’re calling the grab, they’re calling the jersey pull and you have to recognize that, show your hands, and defend without fouling. So they are trying to clean it up, the league is all about scoring, they want to make sure that the offensive player is allowed to move on the court and every year it just makes it a little bit harder and harder to guard individually and collectively as a team because of the rules.”

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman contributed to this story.