If the key to watching basketball better is not to just watch the the ball, what should you watch instead? Well rather than instead, let’s say in addition to. Appropriately coaches tell their players on defense that they should keep the ball in the corner of their eye while staying in contact with their assigned man. That’s good advice for watching also, be aware of the ball but direct your attention elsewhere. Perhaps today’s theme should be watch the feet.
Dateline: September 26, 2012––4 days until the start of training camp!
A few general basketball principles will help you understand what you are seeing.
1) The team with the ball wants to take an easy shot by a player who is not guarded.
2) The defense wants any shot taken to be difficult and contested (a defender close to him with a hand up stopping the ball or at least the shooters sight of the basket.)
3) As a rule the defender covering the man with the ball wants to stay between him and the basket. (Shooting closer to the basket is easier; ergo, don’t let him get closer.)
4) The defenders of the other players will also stay between their man and the basket but shade (move slightly around) toward the ball so as to deny the pass (make it more difficult for the player with the ball to pass it to the man they are guarding). If your man doesn’t have the ball he can’t shoot, period. An exception is an offensive player close to the basket—sometimes his defender will stand next to (leaning on, actually) his man but between his man and the ball (this is called fronting). The idea here is that the offensive player is so close to the basket that it is more important to keep him from getting the ball than it is to be in “good” guarding position once he gets it.
There are some additional factors but the idea is pretty simple. The offense wants scoring to be easy; the defense wants it to be hard (well impossible really but we shall see that the offense has the advantage.) The devil is in the details, and that is what you want to watch. Today we’ll tackle the two situations that comprise more than half of the offense for most NBA teams—one-on-one play and using screens.
As you grow as a basketball watcher, we will try to slowly expand your attention further and further away from the ball. Start with the defender of the man with the ball. The defender wants to be facing his man and to stay directly between him and the basket. However the offensive player has an advantage, he can move; so to be ready to move instantly the defender should be crouching slightly so that he can easily push off left or right in order to stay between his man and the basket. Try this exercise: stand straight up with your feet directly beneath your shoulders. Have your friend stand in front of you and then try to move around you and go out the door behind you. Your goal is to stop them. When they begin to move to the side, and you want to stay between them and the door, what do you do first? If your answer wasn’t “bend your knees” then you weren’t standing straight up. These are fundamental principles of defense—stay low, stay balanced, keep your feet spread and your arms out for balance. Keep your center of gravity between your feet. Look at the defenders position, especially his feet? Watch for this defensive positioning to degrade as the game wears on—as players tire they tend to stand more upright, losing that “poised” crouch that helps them stay with their defensive assignment. (We’ll see this issue resurface when we talk about offensive players away from the ball.)
The offensive ball handler can move with the ball so long as he is dribbling (bouncing the ball). Once he stops dribbling he must keep one of his feet (this becomes his pivot foot) on the ground. He can rotate on this foot but not drag or lift it. If he does so before passing or shooting the ball, it is a traveling violation and the other team gets the ball. Ideally the offensive player would like to go directly to the basket and shoot one of those zero distance shots but the defender is (or at least should be) in his way. So he will try to go around. He may be able to step around so rapidly that the defender is beside him (no longer between him and the basket)—this is often referred to as a “quick first step.” More often the defender is able to slide his feet, keeping his center of gravity between his feet, and stay between his assigned man and the basket.
So the offense tries to make this harder. The man with the ball may fake one way and go the other, or start one way and change directions either by moving the dribble (ball) from one side to the other (crossover dribble) or by spinning back the other way keeping his body between the defender and the ball (because the defender is always trying to take the ball away [steal]). Often this reversal of direction is repeated several times. The ball handler may even slow as if to reverse and then accelerate (called a hesitation dribble). If the ball handler can get the defender to cross his feet (because he can’t slide fast enough to keep up), then a reverse will probably elude the defender who is betrayed by his own momentum. So far only two players have been involved (one on offense and the man defending him)—this is the iso, or isolation play. One-on-one basketball is greatly preferred by ESPN and far too many NBA teams. This has great appeal to the inflated egos common in the NBA—I can do anything I want and you can’t stop me! Needless to say it is frowned upon by basketball purists, and the Celtics (who leave it for end-of-the-clock situations where there isn’t enough time to do something better [and there are a lot of “better’s”]).
Not enough to get open, how about running by a teammate forcing the defender to collide with the teammate? This is called a pick or screen and to be legal requires that the teammate be set (not moving) and facing the oncoming defender. There is a real art to both setting a pick and using that pick so that the picker is not moving and the defender is truly maneuvered into colliding with the picker. Sometimes the ball handler will start away from the pick before doubling back to use the pick. This (called setting him [the defender] up) gets the defender moving the wrong way and when the ball handler reverses direction he gains a few inches which allows him to move by the screener so closely that the defender doesn’t have room to squeeze in between. If he runs into the screener his man is going free; if he goes behind the pick, the ball handler can stop and shoot, protected by the screener who is standing between the defender and the shooter.
This is called the two-man game (the ball handler and his screening teammate) but really involves four players, the two offensive players and their defenders. But we have only covered the first stage of the two-man game. This screen, or pick, action is referred to as the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop (depending upon what the screener does next). The rest of that story next time; but you already have a lot to watch besides the ball. Can the defender stay in front of his man? Can he fight over the pick or does he get hung up? Does he see it coming (or have his teammate, the defender of the player setting the pick warn him) and avoid the collision? If he can’t go between the picker and the ball handler but rather goes below, what does the ball handler do—continue or pull up and shoot?
Notice how we are slowly moving away from the ball? I admit the bouncing ball is mesmerizing but there is a lot more going on; and where and how the ball moves along is absolutely dependent upon what is happening in these “other” layers of the game.
Boston, and all points beyond