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Originally published January 24, 2013 at 10:00 PM | Page modified January 26, 2013 at 5:08 PM

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How NBA game has changed while game was away from Seattle

Embittered fans who say they'll never watch another NBA game because of the Sonics' departure should take another look at the league that left in 2008. You'll be surprised at how much the game has changed.

Times staff columnist

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PORTLAND — Damian Lillard lulled his Indiana defender into a false sense of security before shoulder-faking one way, then cutting hard to the basket.

At the top of the key, his teammate J.J. Hickson anticipated Lillard's cut, slipped a pass between two Pacers defenders and into Lillard's hands for an easy layup. It was the kind of play that should have been recorded for an instructional video.

The Wednesday game in the middle of the long NBA regular season was unremarkable in many ways. Portland had lost six games in a row, while Indiana was tired, both physically and emotionally, after a thrilling win two days earlier in Memphis.

But even in this 100-80 Blazers rout of Indiana, there were a couple dozen plays that reminded us that this was the best basketball in the world and even a lopsided game could have its moments of exquisite entertainment and execution.

Nicolas Batum spotted LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers' All-Star power forward, outrunning Ian Mahinmi down the floor. From the opposite foul line, Batum dropped a pass, Peyton Manning-like, just over Mahinmi's fingers to Aldridge, who caught it while in the air and quickly hammered a virtuoso dunk.

The large and enthusiastic Rose Garden crowd cheered its appreciation.

With the probability of the NBA returning to Seattle, I'm surprised when I listen to embittered callers on talk radio, who while identifying themselves as basketball fans, say they hate the NBA and will never watch another game.

It's not my position to tell people what they should watch and what they should like. I can't get my head around "Downton Abbey," but that's just me.

But if you really believe you're a fan, then I say get over yourself and your disappointment with the ham-handed way the Sonics were taken from you. Watch a few games and then tell me you no longer like the NBA.

The argument against the game is that it's all about isolation and one-on-one plays. That might have been how the game was played in the league for parts of the late 1990s, but the rules have changed and so has the game.

Before Portland's game Wednesday, I asked Blazers coach Terry Stotts, who is doing a remarkable job in his first season there, to defend his league.

"Since they made the rule changes in 2001, I think the game is more free-flowing," said Stotts, who was an assistant with the Sonics from 1992 to 1997. "It's very competitive. There are a lot of young stars who are fun to watch. I've been in the league for over 20 years, and how it has evolved over time has been exciting to watch.

"Everybody was worried for a while about scoring being down and the game being too physical, but the league addressed that and I think the NBA game is more popular than it's ever been."

The reality is that there is less isolation and more movement in the game than there was, say, in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

With the change in the rules in 2001, the game became more up and down and now the ball is positioned more often in the center of the floor, giving players more offensive options. Movement has returned to the NBA game.

"In the '90s the game was so post-oriented and isolation oriented," Stotts said. "It was all oriented on one side of the floor or the other because of the illegal defense rules. From a purist's standpoint, I think the game is more entertaining than it was in the '90s, and even that was a fun period in Seattle."

I love basketball in all of its forms — high school, college, NBA, girls, boys, women, men. I went to an NCAA Division II college game Thursday night and will go to a high-school game Friday, but nightly, from October through June, there is no form of basketball as spectacular or as instructive as the NBA game.

Lillard, a dynamic 6-foot-3 rookie point guard, fearlessly dribbled into the lane and drove hard at Indiana's 7-2 center Roy Hibbert. As Hibbert prepared to block the shot, Lillard, already in the air, shifted the ball from his right hand to his left and banked his bucket off the glass before Hibbert could get to it.

This is what we've been missing in Seattle. And this is why true hoop fans can't wait for the Sonics' return.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation. | 206-464-2176


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