Following a Basketball Game on TV
You’ll get a lot more out of watching a basketball game on TV — or even live — if you do more than watch the ball go into the hoop. Check out these insider tips for catching the real action and increasing your enjoyment of the sport.
Anticipate the next pass
Try to think like the players. When you can anticipate the next pass, you are as connected to the players as you can be from your living room. You’re thinking like the players.
Where a player passes the ball depends on a few factors: what type of ball handler he is, which teammates are on the floor, what type of offense the team is running, and what type of defense the opposition is running. See, you have to know what’s happening on the court.
Pretend that you’re the point guard. Analyze the defense and then make decisions about how you would react. Did the point guard on television act accordingly? Disregard this tip if you’re watching old highlights of Magic Johnson. Nobody could predict what he was going to do with the ball.
Watch the action away from the ball
While you’re watching, don’t be afraid to stray away from the ball. Follow the action away from the ball on the weakside (the side of the court opposite the ball), or watch the post action (down near the basket). Of course, the television camera’s eye is yours, and it usually follows the ball; but most cameras show the court from the side and give a decent half-court view of the proceedings.
Here are some things to look for:
- Pushing and shoving underneath the hoop
- Weakside screens (picks that players set on the side of the court away from the ball)
- Pat Riley’s Armani suit
All are entertaining sideshows to the main event.
By watching action away from the ball, you can answer your own questions as well as other viewers’ questions. For example, if Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers is such a terrific shooter, why doesn’t the defense do a better job of denying him the ball? Answer: Watch Miller while the Pacers are running their offense. Nobody in the NBA is better than he at using picks set by teammates to get an open shot. You can argue that Miller earns his buckets not so much when he shoots the ball but when he leaves his defender behind a pick.
The inveterate hoops fan is one who uses the Previous Channel button on her remote only if both ESPN and CBS are broadcasting college hoops simultaneously on a Saturday afternoon. This kind of fan can spot the alley-oop play before the pass is ever thrown. She follows the weakside and notices the backpick (a weakside pick that frees a player who’s cutting toward the basket) being set on the alley-ooper’s defender.
During the 1997 Final Four, North Carolina’s Vince Carter sprang for at least three first-half alley-oop dunks against Arizona. The hoops junkie was already yelling “Lob!” or “Alley-oop!” before Carter ever left his feet. She saw the screen being set up on the weakside.
Watch the other players on the court besides the star. Vince Carter is fun to watch, but don’t keep your eyes on him all the time. Many great players are in each game, and you may miss something. Focus on an unsung player for five or six straight trips down the court, and you’ll find out a lot about him. Does he hustle back on defense? Does he “take a series off” (that is, fail to hustle on a trip down the court) on defense once in a while?
Whether the star of the game is Vince Carter or your local high school phenom, watch his every move in crunch time. In a four-week span during his second season in the NBA, the Toronto Raptor guard hit three game-winning baskets — two were buzzer-beating three-pointers, one was a dunk. Who was going to shoot the ball was not a secret. But how did he create open shots for himself?
Sometimes the game’s star is not the team’s best player, but the girl with the hot hand that evening. Keep an eye on her. Then during the next game, when she reverts to the form of a mere mortal, try to see whether she’s doing anything differently.
You can keep stats yourself as you watch, or you can rely on the television statisticians to follow more than the score. Some of the less discussed but fun stats to track are offensive rebounding, points off turnovers, points in the paint, and bench scoring.
If you look at the 1997 NCAA semifinal game between Arizona and North Carolina, you see that North Carolina won the rebound battle 52-48, and the offensive boards 22–17. Sounds like the Tar Heels had the edge in that aspect of the game. However, Arizona won the second-chance points (in other words, scoring off offensive rebounds) 15–11. So even though North Carolina had more offensive rebounds, Arizona had more points off offensive rebounds. So Arizona really had the advantage in that area.
Continuing with that game, North Carolina shot 31.1 percent from the field (meaning that 31.1 percent of the Tar Heels’ shots went through the hoop) and Arizona, 33.3. But take a look at three-point shooting: Arizona made 11–29 shots for 38 percent, and North Carolina made just 4–21 for 19 percent. So while the overall shooting was fairly even, the disparity in three-point shooting was the reason for Arizona’s eight-point win.
Watch the officials
Officials can dictate the pace of the game. If they’re whistle-happy, they can slow the pace. Neither team can find a rhythm when the officials are calling a foul on every possession. If an official makes a grandstand call (a call that draws attention to the official) by running into another official’s area to make a call, this is a bad sign. If an official overrules another official, this may mean that the first official thinks he is bigger than the game. A good official does not take the game out of the players’ hands; he controls the game without being noticed.
Officials can also take a team out of its offense or defense by calling a game too tight (whistling too many fouls) or too loose (seldom blowing the whistle). Some teams play more physically than others, and their success can hinge on how much contact the officials will allow.
An official may have a bias — conscious or subconscious — about who is supposed to win the game. An underdog fights this problem, especially on the road. Close calls, many times, go in favor of the team that the official believes is supposed to be the better team — or the home team. In the NBA, this is known as star treatment. In the seventh game of the 2000 NBA Western Conference Finals, Steve Smith of the Portland Trail Blazers collided with Shaquille O’Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers as Smith drove to the basket late in the game. At the time there were less than two minutes remaining and the Blazers trailed by a point. It seemed obvious that O’Neal fouled Smith, but no whistle was blown. The Lakers, who had been favored to win the series, in fact did. It may have turned out differently had that foul been called.
The best officials are the ones you don’t know or don’t remember. When an official does the extra little things on a call, like throwing in a little extra body English, he draws too much attention to himself. That’s bad. Conversely, officials must keep a game from getting out of hand. They can do so by communicating with the players and then, if necessary, calling a technical foul or two.