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The first event that conspired to help speed trump size came in 1979--80, when the NBA instituted the three-point shot. "It was put in as a desperation maneuver for teams that were trying to come back in the fourth quarter," says Kings coach Paul Westphal. But over the years the deepest shot has become more of a weapon. This season teams are shooting a record number of threes per game: 18.0 at week's end, or 4.3 more than they were 10 years ago. There is a good reason that more than one in every five field goals is attempted from behind the arc: Made at a rate of 35.9% through Sunday, the three-pointer is as productive as a two-point shot converted at 53.9%.
That was followed by two more significant changes in the last decade, with scoring and TV ratings in decline. In 2004--05, the NBA issued new rules to curtail hand checking on the perimeter, three years after it enabled zone principles on defense. The latter provision permitted the best scorers to be double-teamed before they received the ball, which forced point guards to become scorers in order to keep defenses honest. The prohibition on hand checking and the punishment of flagrant fouls has provided small guards with safe driving lanes from the three-point line all the way to the basket—though it's all too late for the 6-foot Iverson, who in his day was punished relentlessly for challenging big men in the paint. Along the way the big 6'5" point guards who were so prevalent in the 1980s and '90s have been replaced by the likes of Paul, Rondo, Nelson, Collison and Conley, all having led their teams into the playoffs, all 6'1" or tinier.
Conley's breakthrough underlines the trend from big to small. The No. 4 pick in the 2007 draft, he joined Memphis amid persistent doubts that his stock had been inflated by his lengthy partnership with former Ohio State and high school teammate Greg Oden, who was hyped as the center of his generation. Four years later Oden—like Yao Ming, another potentially transcendent giant—has seen his career ruined by injuries, while Conley has improved to earn a five-year, $40 million extension from the Grizzlies. "I've had to deal with that [criticism] that I was riding Greg's coattails to the NBA," says Conley, who has put the issue behind him.
Since the rule changes, scoring has risen by 12.2 points per game and TV ratings have ballooned as much as 45% in no small part because the courts have been opened up and the driving lanes filled by slashers like Conley. Yet the cheers are not unanimous. "The game is becoming very simple," says 37-year-old Kidd, a 10-time All-Star. "If you have a quick point guard who knows how to play, you've got the advantage because if there's any bump it's a foul on the defense. So you definitely give the 6'3"-or-under guy the advantage."
When 35-year-old Ray Allen was growing up, point guards typically served an inglorious setup role. "Now the best position is point guard because of all of the guys in the league who can play and can score," says the Celtics' shooting guard, the NBA's alltime leader from the three-point line. "Most of the small point guards couldn't play 10 years ago, because we would have posted them up with bigger guards and they would have been out of the game. But now it's so open that you can get to the free throw line easier, there's less contact. It gives a smaller guy better capability."
These days the NBA operates less like chess and more like a video game. "It used to be your smarts would get you through, but now it's strictly talent and athleticism—if you've got that, you can play in this league," says Miller, 34. "In college you're forced to think, you're taught how to play basketball. Get to the NBA, and you can just come in and run with your head cut off, and that's what makes the league. When I came in, you couldn't just run and jump all over the place. You were going to get hit eventually, or somebody was going to tell you to slow down."
Collison began the year playing for Indiana coach Jim O'Brien, who ran a passing-game offense that discouraged Collison from dribbling. Then O'Brien was fired in January and replaced by interim coach Frank Vogel, who put the ball in Collison's hands in pick-and-roll situations and empowered him to seize command. "Everything initiates with the point guard now," says Vogel. "I want him being a coach on the floor. Every day I say, 'Run your team. Who's not involved? Are you being aggressive enough in pick-and-rolls?' " The results have been impressive: The Pacers were 17--27 under O'Brien. Since Vogel took over and turned Collison loose, they were 20--17 at week's end. "It's easier," says Collison of the NBA pace in comparison to the more controlled college game. "Some people may disagree, but I think it's easier."
This liberating era creates an interesting question: How in the name of Bruce Bowen does anyone stop an opposing point guard? There is no simple answer, but the best defense on a slasher like Rose is a long-armed defender who will play off him and dare him to shoot jumpers. (That's how Bryant has attempted to curtail Rondo.) Collison is going to have his hands full—or wish he could have use of them under the old rules—in the opening round against the top-seeded Bulls while trying to prevent Rose from bullying past him. Defense has been Collison's biggest weakness this season. "He's been O.K., he's been nothing spectacular," says Bird, now the Pacers' president, of Collison's overall body of work, as if trying to humble him for the job ahead.
Based on their 1--3 record against Chicago, Collison's Pacers don't figure to seriously impede Rose's path. But Rose's journey becomes far more difficult as Chicago moves deeper into the postseason. The newfound strength of the little man is that everything runs through him. But what happens when the most exceptional opponents load up their defensive assets to overwhelm him? The Bulls' postseason fortunes may well rely on the success of their perimeter shooting, as opponents do all they can to jam Rose's lanes to the basket.
The great irony of these playoffs is that the team that everyone is chasing is one of the few that hasn't embraced small ball. The Lakers continue to operate in an old-fashioned, two-guard front within the triangle offense. Point guard Derek Fisher handles the ball less than Bryant, yet his role remains indispensable as a late-game shotmaker. And if Fisher does drill one of his signature, series-shifting threes, it will be fitting: a little man starring in the game's biggest moment.