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How to Understand the NBA Game Better

Where are your eyes when you watch basketball? Here are some helpful hints.

Portland Trail Blazers v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Over the past week, we’ve talked plenty about things to watch for from the Portland Trail Blazers. We’ve discussed my personal experience recapping games. We’ve looked at measuring sticks for the Blazers as a team and as individuals.

Today we’re concluding the series, talking about general principles to improve your understanding of the game as a whole. We’ll shade discussion towards the Trail Blazers as normal, but really this could apply to any NBA team. Your eyes are conditioned to see certain things when you watch basketball. Here are a few others you might look at to expand your vision of the game.

Away from the Ball

One of the most important steps in expanding your understanding of the game is learning to watch the action away from the ball. You don’t have to ignore the guy with the rock, but realize that your eye will naturally be drawn back to the primary action when something important happens. While that action is being set up, file away the position of the ball in your mind and let your eyes look across the floor at everybody else. Note who is standing and who is moving. Watch to see if players set screens for each other down low or on the opposite side of the floor. Ask yourself how the floor is being spaced and what that might mean for the upcoming play.

If the primary ballhandler decides to score on his own, you won’t miss anything. You’re just going to watch him drive or shoot, like you would have if you had laser focused on him the whole time. But if he passes or other players get involved, you’ll start to see how and why before it happens, as you’ve been watching that part of the floor the whole time.

Watch the Defense Against Your Team

Here’s a corollary to the above. As you’re scanning the court, don’t just watch your own team’s players. Focus on defenders and how they’re reacting to the play. Nobody sees, or moves in response to, your team quicker than the guys who are guarding them. Watching defenders will help you understand how they perceive threats or don’t.

Sometimes you’ll see a defender drift inside the lane from the sideline, leaving his man completely open at the three-point arc. That tells you something about how that player’s shooting is regarded. Watching how opponents handle high pick and roll plays informs you what they fear. Are they laying back against the drive? Are they chasing the dribbler around the screen or going the other way, underneath it? Are they switching? If so, on whom, and under what circumstances?

All of this can seem confusing at first, but one you identify one play, others start to become more evident. Pick one type of play—like screens—to watch for first. Whenever somebody sets a pick, ask what they’re trying to accomplish with it and see whether that happens. Once your eye sees that easily, look for other things to add to your repertoire.

Here’s a bonus tip: If you have a rewind feature, watch plays develop when things go wrong on defense. When somebody gets a straight-line drive for a jam in the halfcourt, go back and look at the defense leading up to it. Who moved, who was out of place, and did any offensive actions (like screens or shooters pulling defenders out) contribute to the breakdown? Watching things go wrong can often tell you more than seeing things go right.

It’s a Space Game

Remember that, systemically at least, basketball is a game of space. Offenses try to find or create open avenues through which to move the ball and get a shot. Defenses try to cover all potential territory.

It’s easy to recognize who players are. Your understanding of the game will increase when you start asking where they are. Look for clumps of players on the court. As yourself who is standing alone and why. Watch when a player moves from one place to another. That’s all intentional stuff!

If you watch long enough, you’ll be able to tell when things are going wrong. If Scoot Henderson is dribbling the ball high and two teammates flash into the middle of the lane in front of him, you’ve just witnessed an error. Scoot can’t shoot. He wants to drive into the open space ahead of him. One teammate filling it up might be an attempt at a post up. Two players gum up all of Scoot’s driving space, at the same time drawing so many defenders into the area that he can’t make an entry pass. Welcome to your stalled set.

Identifying where there’s congestion on the floor and what space is free will tell you a lot about the priorities and capabilities of the teams involved.

Watch for the Second Pass

If you want to know how prepared your team is, watch what happens with the second pass in their offense.

If they don’t pass at all, you have a dominant point guard taking over the game. That’s easy to understand.

The first pass the point guard makes usually will be to the primary option in the play. Seeing the ball go to one of your main scorers doesn’t illuminate that much.

But what happens when that first option doesn’t work? The second pass, away from the primary scorer, will tell you how many other options your team has and how ready they are to use them.

You’d be amazed how often that second pass ends up going around the perimeter, laterally, not doing anything to make the defense move. It’s the basketball equivalent of a team scratching their heads and saying, “Ummmm...now what?” When that happens, expect the possession to devolve into a contested, isolation possession.

Sometimes teams react much better to the defense shutting down their first option. Basketball gets beautiful then. Watch for a crisp pass or two reversing the ball to the opposite side of the floor, causing the defense to shift entirely, which opens up seams for players on both sides of the court to attack. Even better, watch for cutters flashing through the lane or a player whose man just left him sneaking to the three-point arc and putting up his hands.

Gauging whether the second pass in the offense is productive or a bail-out will tell you plenty about the mental state, and offensive capabilities, of your team.

Tempo

How fast the on-court action is progressing can tell you who’s in charge of it.

Some teams—often younger, with less-established personnel—like to go fast. They’re either looking to shoot before the defense gets established or get up so many shots that sheer percentages weigh in their favor.

Other teams—often with established stars who can beat anybody one-on-one—prefer a more measured approach. They play the percentages in a different way: when set up properly, my guy is going to beat yours more often than not.

The Phoenix Suns probably don’t want to turn Kevin Durant into just another player, running up and down the court at top speed an a layup exchange that pretty much any rec league team could engage in successfully. The Portland Trail Blazers don’t want Toumani Camara and Matisse Thybulle going iso against a set defense. You can tell who’s succeeding in their plans by watching the tempo of play as each team tries to control it.

The first thing to watch is whether the tempo-friendly team is walking it up the court. That’s a sure sign of disaster. Mental or physical fatigue have set in and the game is probably over.

If the fast break team is running, though, it’s a good sign. It probably means their defense is forcing misses. (It’s hard to push tempo when you’re taking the ball out of the net.) They’re also making the halfcourt opponent run on defense, wearing them down for the late quarters.

Even if a team isn’t streaking down the floor explicitly, tempo of halfcourt offense makes a difference. Watch whether the ball is moving quickly side to side, and whether drivers are getting penetration. Those things force defenses to move their feet. Quick tempo teams die when the ball is held in place, Their whole premise is to move the defense, creating openings, usually because they have trouble scoring against a stationary opponent. The slower the ball moves, the more entrenched the defense is against it.

The Trail Blazers aren’t as wed to the “first good shot in 8 seconds” philosophy as they once were, but they are still far better when the ball moves than when it stands still. Watch the pace of feet moving and passing. Those won’t guarantee that shots fall, but they’ll certainly indicate they have a better chance of doing so.