Three things to know: NBA scoring down this season and it’s not just free throws

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1) NBA scoring down this season and it’s not just free throws

This season, the average offensive rating in the NBA is 106.2 (points scored per 100 possessions, using Basketball-References‘ numbers).

Last season it was 112.3. The bubble season it was 110.6. The season before that it was 110.4.

Through the first two weeks of this NBA season, scoring is down — way down, 6.1 points per 100 possessions compared to the season before. For a league that has leaned toward opening up the offense and letting the athleticism and skill of its players shine, it’s an unexpected trend.

What is causing the drop?

The easy line to draw is to point to the change in foul calls around the leagueJames Harden, Trae Young and others are not getting whistles for “non-basketball moves” and their free throws are down. Across the league, we are seeing 3.6 fewer free throw attempts per game this season, and compared to the last pre-COVID season free throw attempts are down 6.2 per game.

However, talk to players and they point to something bigger than the referees:

This is the second NBA season coming off a shortened off-season, and players point to reduced time for their bodies to recover and work on skill development. The Milwaukee Bucks closed out the Phoenix Suns on July 20, a whole month later than the traditional NBA Finals ends, yet the league wanted to get back on its regular schedule, so the season tipped off on Oct. 19 — that’s a month less time to rest and recover. The season before that was the bubble championship for the Lakers, then a rushed offseason to start games in time for Christmas.

Players say they are feeling the effects.

Some top NBA scorers also got off to slow starts this season due to injury, including Harden (the hamstring that slowed him last playoffs limited his offseason work) and Damian Lillard (the career 37.4% shooter from 3 is hitting 23.2% to start this season).

Maybe the offensive numbers will tick up around the league as the season wears on, but the pandemic took a toll on just about everything we know and love the last couple of years. We are still dealing with the fallout. NBA scoring appears to be simply part of that trend; the short offseasons to get back to “normal” have come at a cost.

2) Shorthanded Milwaukee has dropped three straight games

On paper it should have been a good early-season measuring stick game: The defending champion Bucks against maybe the hottest team in the league to start the season, the Utah Jazz.

Instead, it was a third straight game to forget for Milwaukee, which fell to Utah 107-95.

It’s not hard to see why when you look at the Bucks injury report: Jrue Holiday missed his fourth straight game with an ankle injury, Brook Lopez missed his sixth straight game with a back issue, Khris Middleton was ill and missed the game against the Jazz, and Donte DiVincenzo has yet to play this season following the foot surgery that sidelined him last playoffs.

Without Lopez as the drop-back center protecting the rim, and without the strong defense of Holiday at the point of attack, the Milwaukee defense has fallen to 24th in the NBA. The Bucks offense has been pretty average this season as well, but when they struggled on that end in years past they could always count on an elite defense to keep them in games. Not so far this season, with so many key players out.

The Bucks’ fortunes will turn once they get healthy, but it has been a rough patch to open the season.

Utah continues to roll: 5-1 with a top-five offense and defense to start the season. They are healthy and on top o the West standings, where they likely will be most of the campaign.

3) James Harden is finding his groove, Kevin Durant ejected in Nets’ win

Remember that slump James Harden was in to start the season, the one everyone wanted to blame on the new foul call enforcement and the drop in free throws (rather than the hamstring issue that severely limited his offseason work)?

It’s over — James Harden is back. Harden had a triple-double against the Pistons on Sunday — 18 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds — two days after he scored 29 and got to the free throw line 19 teams in a win over the Pacers. Harden is back to attacking, and you can see the confidence grow game-to-game. He looks like himself again.

Behind Harden, Brooklyn had little trouble keeping the Pistons winless, taking the game 117-91. Kevin Durant led the Nets in scoring with 23, but he was ejected in the third quarter when he got his elbow up to the neck of Kelly Olynyk. Durant was tracking Saddiq Bey, who was moving to the top of the key, when Olynyk set a screen and KD did too much trying to fight through it.

The Nets went on an 11-0 run after Durant was ejected and the game was never in doubt after that.

Highlights of the night:

LeBron James did this in his 19th NBA season at age 36.

LeBron was a walking highlight against the Rockets.

Savor watching this man play basketball, it’s not going to last forever, and we will never see the likes of him again.

Last night’s scores:

Dallas 105, Sacramento 99
Charlotte 125, Portland 113
Utah 107, Milwaukee 95
Brooklyn 117, Detroit 91
L.A. Lakers 95, Houston 85